Not long ago my wife and I received a text: an active shooter was near our son's school. It brought us to the brink of tragedy — and reminded me that some monsters are, in fact, real.
I can see police helicopters in the distance. They’re heading in the same direction as my wife and I, towards our son’s elementary school.
I’m driving way too fast, just vaguely slowing down for stop signs. It might be my imagination, but it seems like we’re the only car in our lane. There’s plenty of traffic going the other way, away from the helicopters. Does everybody in the city know what’s happening already? Are they evacuating and we’re the only idiots driving straight into the carnage?
There are two layers of emotion that hit you when you’re a parent and you’ve just received a text from your kid’s school informing you that they’re on lockdown because there’s an active shooter in the area. First, there’s abject panic. You and your partner don’t even discuss it; you just get in the car and start driving. Every molecule in your body is screaming, “Go get him!”
The other emotion, at odds with your first impulse, is the surreal realization that you’re driving towards the police helicopters and the part of town that every news update is warning should be avoided because a SWAT unit is on the scene. Your survival instinct kicks in and sends nervous signals to your brain, reminding you that pointing a vehicle in the direction of an angry white guy with a semiautomatic might be counter-intuitive.
It’s a 15-minute drive to my son Charlie’s school. That 15 minutes flies by on any other day, when I can just mindlessly hum along to the radio. But today it feels like it’s happening in slow motion. A million thoughts are ricocheting around my head. Did I tell Charlie I love him this morning? How many doors are there between his first grade classroom and the street? When we get there and there’s a person with a weapon intending to riddle my son with bullets, what exactly is my game plan? I’m not sure.
I am sure of one thing: I’m not ready for this. I don’t want to be one of those parents you see on the news, grieving in public after a school shooting. I’ve watched them talk about their dead children, and I’m always amazed that they don’t collapse to the ground, convulsing with agony like characters in a Greek tragedy. It makes my heart ache, but I can always turn off the TV and erase their tragedies from my mind. I can go back to my make-believe world, where kids being murdered in school is something that happens to other people.
About halfway to his school, I realize that I don’t know what “lockdown” means. Charlie’s respective grandparents visited over the last few months, and they all had concerns about the security at his school. There wasn’t nearly enough of it, they scolded us. It would be too easy for strangers to get inside. Where were the armed guards? The metal detectors? Maybe a retinal scan before you’re even allowed in the parking lot?
We listened to their concerns with the same condescending expressions we had when Charlie explained why he was old enough to have a PlayStation. And our response was more or less the same. “That’s sweet, but no.”
This isn’t one of “those” schools, we told them. We’re different. Our school has a “Black Lives Matter” sign on the front lawn. And a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign, written in a bunch of different languages such as Hebrew and Arabic. Every entrance has a sticker with a drawing of a gun with a slash through it. That’s a pretty clear message. Guns are not allowed.
I believed in the power of those yard signs and no-gun door stickers. They were our talismans.
I hear my wife gasp. She’s been scrolling through social media on her phone, looking for updates on the shooter. Somebody posted a picture of a building, the roof covered with snipers aiming at the street. We both recognize the building. We pass it every day on the way to Charlie’s school. It’s right down the block.
I drive through a stoplight. My body feels numb. I’m driving towards snipers, I think, and I can’t get there fast enough.
“Will you check it again, Daddy? Please check it again.
“I already checked it, bud,” I told Charlie. “It’s all clear. No monsters at all.”
“Please? One more time? Pleeeeease?”
I was starting to get annoyed but tried not to show it. If this was what Charlie needed to finally go to sleep, then fine. I walked over to his closet, kicking open the door like an outlaw making a dramatic cowboy bar entrance.
“Any monsters in there?” I barked. “This is your last chance to leave peacefully. If I catch any of you jerkheads in there, I’m going to shave your bodies and flush you down the toilet!”
Charlie giggled from under his blanket. I used the broom handle — we always keep a broom next to his closet for bedtime monster sweeps — and poked it into the darkness. Nothing. I turned to Charlie and shrugged. “If they were there, they’re long gone now,” I said.
Charlie stared at me, unconvinced. I tiptoed back to the bed and slid under the covers next to him. I held his hand and whisper-sang to him — anything by Paul McCartney usually does the trick — and waited for him to drift off. Just when I thought it was safe to slip away…
“Could you check under the bed?” he asked, without even a hint of sleepiness in his voice. “Just one quick look?”
The monsters that live in Charlie’s bedroom are the most evolutionarily advanced creatures of the modern world. They’re more like shape-shifters than monsters, capable of hiding in just about any shadowy space, zipping effortlessly between dresser drawers and the two inches of space between Charlie’s lamp and the wall. My son is incapable of remembering exactly what happened at school on any given day, but he can describe the beasts that lurk in his bedroom with a Lovecraftian attention to detail. Yellow hepatitis-y eyes, forked tongues that flicker like a cornered rattlesnake, skin the texture of oily leather, and for some reason comically, Dumbo-sized ears.
We’ve never told him that monsters don’t exist. My wife and I have read enough child psychology to know that no good can come from dismissing his fears, even if they’re obviously just big, hairy metaphors. So if we’ve all accepted the reality that we’re cohabitating with monsters, who may or may not be bloodthirsty, our bedtime ritual is essentially just monster immigration reform. How do we keep the monsters out, or at least on their side of the room — “back where they came from,” as a racist might say?
We’ve tried several strategies. The lights were left on — first Charlie’s bedside lamp, then the overhead, and then eventually an Ikea floor lamp with the luminosity of a movie premiere searchlight — but the monsters weren’t that easily intimidated.
His mother attempted a monster smudging, burning sage in Charlie’s bedroom to drive the knuckle-draggers out. It was a lot of New Age baloney as far as I was concerned, but it seemed to work for a few days until the monsters returned, stronger than ever. We sprayed every corner of his room with monster poison (the label only said Febreze to fool the monsters, we told him), painted his walls (to something bright and festive, the antithesis of the monster aesthetic), and even hosted regular Where the Wild Things Are book discussions, to pose the mind-blowing hypothesis that monsters might actually be looking to boys for leadership rather than nourishment. But Charlie wasn’t having any of it.
“That Max kid is out of his mind,” he wailed. “He took a boat to the monster’s island? It’s like he wants to be murdered!”
I was on night six of scattershot sleep, exhausted from the endless monster patrol and ready to freak out on a seven-year-old. Every fiber of my being wanted to take him by the shoulders and start screaming, “There are no monsters! You’ve had us on monster high alert for the last six months and there have been zero monster attacks or even attempted monster attacks! I can’t protect you, nobody can protect you, because what you’re afraid of doesn’t exiiiiiiiiist!!”
But I didn’t. I bit my lip and did what every father does when he’s at the end of his rope. I improvised.
“Have I ever told you about this blanket?” I asked Charlie as we laid together in bed.
“No,” Charlie said curiously. “What about it?”
“It belonged to my grandfather. Your great-grandfather. He made it himself as a monster deterrent.”
“What’s a deterrent?”
“It’s like a shield,” I explained. “Your great-grandfather grew up many, many years before you were born, back when monsters didn’t hide in closets. When he was around your age, half of the kid population was being eaten by monsters.”
“They were?” he asked, his eyes wide with terror.
“Oh, sure. It was a bloodbath back then. That’s why your great-grandfather made this blanket. It took him most of his childhood, but he found the perfect thread count with just the right amount of wizardry. There isn’t a monster alive who could get through it.”
“Are you sure it works?”
“It worked well enough that monsters didn’t eat your great-grandfather,” I told him. “He passed the blanket down to your grandfather and monsters didn’t eat him either.”
“Did you have this blanket as a kid?”
“I sure did,” I told him. “And look—” I held up my arms for his inspection. “Not a single monster bite or claw mark on me.”
“You had monsters in your bedroom too?”
“Are you kidding me?” I laughed. “My room was lousy with monsters. But after a few years with the blanket, they just gave up. They realized I wasn’t worth their time.”
Charlie gripped the blanket with both hands and pulled it up over his nose. My heart was racing. I had him hooked, I just had to reel him in.
“There’s one thing you have to do though, to activate it,” I said.
“What?” He asked breathlessly.
“It’s like a magic spell,” I said. “Once you say it out loud, the blanket becomes impassable to monsters. It goes like this…”
Monster, monster, go away
No kids for you to eat today
My blanket is too strong for you
Find someone else for your kid stew
Growl and hiss with all your might
But there’s no eating me tonight
We practiced this incantation a few times, until he was able to do it alone. He was cautious the first night, but when he made it to the morning unscathed, he seem convinced of the blanket’s magical properties.
“It really works, Daddy,” he said. “You weren’t kidding!”
I am Daddy, vanquisher of monsters.
The lockdown is lifted by the time we get to Charlie’s school. We burst into his classroom, limbs flailing and expecting the worst. But it’s not the scene we were anticipating. There are no weeping kids huddled in the corner. They’re just hanging out, working on art projects, a little surprised that their parents are picking them up so early.
On the way home, my wife and I try to be nonchalant, asking him vague questions and acting like our heartrates aren’t still thumping at a dangerously high level.
“So how was your day?” I ask, pretending as though I’m barely interested in his answer. “Anything exciting happen? Spend a lot of time inside or… or what?”
He tells us about the lockdown, how his teacher turned out the lights and had them sit far away from the windows. “I heard there was a murderer on the loose,” Charlie said conspiratorially.
“A what? Who told you that?”
He names the kid I totally expected. The one with the weird haircut who’s into video games and has seen too many PG movies. I make a mental note to keep my eye on that punk.
It starts to trickle out online that the whole thing was a false alarm. There was no shooter, just some jackass who thought it’d be funny to call 911 with a made-up story about a Caucasian dude with a chip on his shoulder and an assault rifle.
Nobody was hurt, but now my son knows what it feels like to sit on the floor in a dark classroom with a bunch of confused seven-year-olds as the intercom implores them “DON’T BE ALARMED” and their teacher fumbles with the door lock and the kids whisper to each other that whatever they’re hiding from is probably the clown from It, a movie they’ve never seen but they’ve heard about it and at least this week it’s the scariest thing they can imagine.
Charlie forgets all about the lockdown when we get home. He never really thought he was in danger, and it has no more significance to him than another boring school assembly. But I’m a mess. My indignation is just beginning to froth. Not at the idiot who called in the fake shooter. I’m pissed off at what I’ve suddenly decided is the inadequate safety measures at my son’s school. His grandmothers were right, it’s too easy to get to him. And the world is filled with maniacs and monsters with guns and sharpened teeth.
Starting tomorrow, I’m going to raise hell with the school’s administrators, and demand that they make some goddamn changes. I don’t have a plan, I’m just an anxious dad who’s only just realizing that his son isn’t being educated in an impenetrable bubble.
I think about Sandy Hook. December 14th, 2012. That was the first school shooting that rattled me. Of course the other ones did too — Columbine, Virginia Tech— but when Sandy Hook happened, I had only recently become a parent. I heard the news when I was cradling a small, fragile human being in my arms, who I loved more than my own life. As horrifying as Sandy Hook was, it felt like the end of something. Surely we’d endured too much as a country. There were too many dead kids. This was the line in the sand.
Charlie wasn’t even a year old yet, but I was certain that by the time he grew up and became a boy and went to first grade, the same grade of the children murdered at Sandy Hook, this whole ugly mess would be behind us. Semi-automatic rifles would be banned, or we’d figure out why angry white kids were slaughtering their classmates, or there’d be some solution to this bloody shit show. First graders had been murdered. First graders! We weren’t just going to let that happen and be okay with it.
President Obama told us in 2012 to “hug our children a little tighter,” and I did that. I hugged my baby believing that the madness I saw on TV would never happen to him. School shootings would become an antiquated idea. Like when my parents spoke of people assassinating presidents. That’s just the way the world was for a while. But then it stopped being that way. And I thought it would be the same for school shootings. It would just stop, because as cruel and stupid as human beings can be, we eventually figure out how to course-correct. At least I hope we do.
“You okay Daddy?”
I didn’t realize Charlie had been watching me. Since we got home, I’d been pacing the floor, muttering at nobody in particular. I may have poured myself a bourbon, but only because I couldn’t get my hands to stop shaking. I’m not sure what to do with the dread I’ve been holding since getting that rotten text from his school, telling us there might be a shooter within walking distance of the only thing I’ve created in this world that really matters but don’t worry because his classroom is almost impossible to get into unless you know how to push a glass door open with your hand.
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “It’s just been a rough day.”
Charlie has his blanket cradled in his arms; he dragged it from his bedroom into my office. “You want to snuggle?” he asks.
I nod and he climbs into my lap, pulling the blanket over both of us. It feels safe in there. I know it’s bullshit. His blanket has no special powers. Everything I told him about it was a lie. It’s not a centuries-old heirloom from his great-grandfather. We bought it from Target a few years ago. And it absolutely can’t cast out any monsters, real or imagined. But I need a convincing lie right now. I need some comforting bullshit so I can fall asleep tonight. My monster spell was broken, and I need some new fiction to believe in.
“We have to say the magic spell,” Charlie reminds me.
We say it together, repeating the words as though they were the Lord’s Prayer.
Monster, monster, go away
No kids for you to eat today…
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