Everybody’s got a story, what’s yours?
When Nine was little, she got such an earful of stranger danger education at school that she wouldn’t talk to anyone she didn’t know. Even when she had picked out exactly what she wanted, she would look to me to order for her in a restaurant; if someone in a store complimented her on her outfit, she would hide behind me. Once at a party she was glued to my side. I was talking to a woman, making a new friend, and she tugged on my arm so I could lean down and listen while she asked in a whisper why it was okay to talk to the woman since I didn’t know her.
I had to think about that before I could answer. What I came up with was that we were both friends of the hostess and we were doing something together, at a party to celebrate a grown-up’s success. Since we had two things in common, that made us less like strangers and more like potential friends. My explanation seemed to satisfy my little girl, although it was still a few more years before she got fully over the early lesson: don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.
Have borne Nine and Thirteen, the boy formerly known as Twelve, in a big city, having lived with them there through 9/11 and the DC Sniper attacks, having lived with a go bag, an escape plan, and a complete understanding of the school lockdown policies implemented during those trying times, I am relaxed and at ease in our middle-west capitol city. I leave the top down on my convertible with groceries in the back, I set my purse on the floor at the coffee shop and go to the ladies’ room, I hand my business card bearing my cell phone number out to anyone who inquires about yoga classes. It doesn’t mean I’m not watchful, but I feel safe here.
Then, a few days ago, the phone rang two minutes before I normally leave the house to walk to Nine’s bus stop and meet her after school. It was an automated message, reporting that all buses from her elementary school would be twenty minutes late. I puttered around for a little while and set out to meet her bus, expecting a tale of some odd kerfuffle to come tumbling forth. She was not, as I thought she would be, full of news. Instead, it was only after our usual exchange about the nature of her day that I asked, “Why was your bus late?”
In a voice I can only describe as sanguine, she told me, “We were in lockdown.”
Flipping out on the inside, but determined to match her composure, I asked, “Oh, really? Why?”
“I don’t know. My bus was called and I started down the hallway when I heard the really loud alarms, beep, beep, beep. The voice (she indicates the air and I gather she means an announcement over the loudspeaker) said: ‘We are in lockdown.’ So I went into a fifth grade classroom and they turned off all the lights. Then the voice said, ‘this is not a drill.’”
My mind is spinning, wondering what on earth could have caused this lockdown, but I speak calmly, “And how do you feel about that?”
“Oh, okay. I wish I had a cell phone so I could text you. It didn’t seem like very long …” It’s only then that she thinks to be alarmed and she clings to me, “It was freaky.”
I wrap my arm around her and we continue up the hill toward home. “Not to worry. You did everything perfectly and you’re safe and you’re home. We’ll find out what happened.”
As the afternoon unfolds we learn the details—not far from Nine’s school there was an altercation between two junior high students just arriving off of their bus. It involved a knife. Local police requested the elementary go into lockdown as a precaution. The entire episode was contained within twenty minutes and the elementary students released. The next day the principal treated the entire school, scooping ice cream himself for one class at a time, to root beer floats, in celebration of how efficiently and maturely the students handled the situation.
A few days later I’m driving Thirteen to a party at his junior high. I make sure he has his phone and tell him in the unlikely event I am late, be sure he waits with friends he knows well. He should ask his friends, in fact, to wait with him and make sure each of them has a ride before we leave. My mind is twisting the story of the week into a dark, sinister junior high full of errant youths with knives wanting to inflict harm. But when we arrive outside his school, the sun is shining and the joyful energy of eighth graders bouncing around in anticipation of their party is infectious.
I watch Thirteen climb out of the back of the convertible and smile as his friends stream over to greet him. My heart goes out to the boys who are not there—one recovering from being attacked, the other in trouble. After an initial flurry of reports, the story has dropped out of the news cycle, and we are unlikely to ever hear what happened, who said what to whom, why the situation turned violent. I wonder about their parents, too, and think how this story must have rocked their lives.
Sometimes, for events like these, if I really want to understand them, I turn to fiction. Sometimes, I turn to what I understand about human nature. Sometimes I breathe through the moment and carry on, as in this case, a wee bit more cautious perhaps. Mostly, I am reminded that we are complex characters, each and every one of us, and learning someone’s story is the only way to begin to learn who that person is. I look with new eyes as I maneuver through my day—the people I don’t know are strangers to me. Still, I am lucky and feel grateful that I live where I do, a place where a fifteen-minute precautionary school lockdown makes the news and taking the chance to learn a stranger’s story is more likely to net a new friend than a certain danger.
A new moon and an eclipse for this breezy day in May. Wishing you the chance to hear at least one person’s story and the opportunity to tell your own. Thanks for being a part of mine, Rxo