|and out into the wilderness we must let them go|
They were excited to show me what they had learned that day. Clambering down from their chairs, they took me, each by a hand, into the narrow hallway leading from kitchen to dining room.
"There has to be no windows," said six-year-old Cassidy.
"And you have to be away from doors," added Mischa, my nine-year-old.
They were as giddy as if they were staging a play, which of course in a way, they were. They were the students, dutiful and serious learners; the house was the school, and the source of tension was a vague, shapeless threat to be conquered in four acts.
The children would have called the play, Preparing for Things We Don't Understand, But That's OK Because We Used Up an Entire Block of Time and got to Roll on the Floor.
I would have called the play, (Even More) Terrifying Things for a Parent to Think About When They Relinquish Their Children to the World.
Act one: Fire Drill
The girls knew this act best of all of course, having rehearsed it several times yearly in elementary school, in preschool, at home. The most jarring part was the initial alarm, but once they recognized the sound for what it was, they fell easily into their roles, with little fear. In fact, they both told me, even while the horn blared, excitement reigned as they exited, single file, out of the school and onto a designated meeting spot in record time.
"Less than a minute, mom!" Mischa proudly exclaimed. Alas, the younger children were not quite as jubilant, having taken almost twice as long to regroup on the field.
"Some kids just can't settle down," said Cassidy, shaking her head. "But we were warned about this one. The next one will be a surprise, and I bet we'll do better."
Act two: Gas Leak Drill
"It's just like a fire drill, only once you are in your groups outside, you go across the street to the church," explained Mischa.
"Yeah, but we didn't get to go to the church today. Awwww." How exciting Cassidy thought it would have been to not only leave the school grounds spontaneously, but to be exited to a new and foreign building to await the all-clear.
I wondered if the church was larger inside than it looked from the outside, and how strong a gas leak would have to grow to be detected in the first place.
Act three: Tornado Drill
When we moved to the cornfield, we traded the life we were used to for a set of unknowns, of news. One of the news was the weather. In Toronto we had lake effect, we had slush, we had humidity. We had lots and lots of concrete to buffer wind and hold the heat. Out here, we have fog, we have hail and we have hundreds of kilometres of flat land that the wind roars across, battering whatever is brave enough to stand upright in its wake. We have tornado weather. There hasn't been a touchdown in our time here yet, but we have spent a treacherous night huddled in the basement as the weather alerts implored us to take cover. We had no tornado drills where I went to school, so the children demonstrate.
"Go close to the wall and go like this," Cassidy gets down low, bum on her heels and forehead on her knees. "Then, take your arms and cover your head, and try to cover your ears if it's too loud."
"We don't use our hands, we use a binder to cover our head!" Mischa runs to the sunroom, grabs a magazine, and scrambles into position next to her sister. 150 flimsy pages as protective as any three-ringed binder against 200 km per hour winds, I suppose.
Act Four: Lockdown
"It's like a tornado drill, but we don't leave the classroom. We go into the cubby room, and get down really small behind our jackets." Cassidy is serious now.
"We don't have a cubby room, so we go under our desks and pull our chair in front of us," says Mischa. "But you have to be quiet."
"Yeah," says Cassidy, "the most important part is to be really, really quiet."
I swallow the lump in my throat.
"Why would you have to go on lockdown?" I try to sound gentle, inquisitive. I want to know the language that was used to persuade my children that their survival depends on being as tiny, as quiet, as unseen as they can possibly be. I want to know how it was explained to my children that invisibility is their best shield when the threat is neither nature, nor accident.
"Well maybe there's a bad person in the school, or maybe somebody that doesn't belong here gets in." There's no waiver in my six-year-old's voice so I try to hide my own.
"And how do you know that you have to go on lockdown? What's the signal?"
"Oh," says Mischa, "the principal comes on the loudspeaker and says: Students and teachers, lockdown." Her voice is terse, authoritative as she mimics the announcement, and I nod as she tells me.
"So was everybody very still and very quiet?" I ask.
"Yeah, in my class they were," says Mischa.
"No, not in mine," says Cassidy. "Some people were being silly and wiggly and couldn't stop laughing even though we were supposed to be super quiet."
And this is where my head begins to swim and I go all the places a parent doesn't want to go. First to Newtown, then back to the hallways of our school, where - what if? What if the bad person gets in while the principal is away from his desk, unable to give the lockdown signal? What if the bad person sees our students before they see him? What if my child is in the library or the computer lab or the gym when the lockdown signal is given? What if my child is in the bathroom, and doesn't hear the announcement and walks out into the hall, deserted but for one bad person ...
I want to scream, I want to scream a huge fuck you to a world where a six-year-old's giggle could get her killed and I want to rage against the country we live beside where mass school shootings ignite no change but lobby groups ensure that anybody can walk into a grocery store with an automatic weapon strapped to his back and I want to rage against the country I live in for allowing this fear, this influence, this possibility, into our own school and for allowing the word "lockdown" to enter the lexicon of my children.
But I blink back my rage and my fear and allow the children to play out their scene. I want them to understand what they must do in such circumstances, and to never understand why they are doing it.
Act Five: Epilogue
"You guys impress me," I tell my children after they have stood up out of the lockdown position. "I'm glad you were paying close attention. Do you feel like you'll remember what to do if there's another drill?"
"Uh-huh" Cassidy says, hopping over to where I stand. "We practiced a lot."
"I'll remember," says Mischa, "I am in grade four, y'know."
"Right." I say, "Of course. How about if we go outside now and play for a bit; I could use some fresh air."
We leave the dinner dishes on the table and head into the backyard. I breathe in the cool autumn evening and the girls run to find the badminton raquets. They are arguing over whose team I will be on. We decide on a triangle; we'll change direction every now and then.
"Ok," I say, lobbing the bird, "let's start playing because we don't have much time. It's going to get dark soon."