I was a sophomore in high school and in Mrs. Smejkal's biology class. The notification sound in her email dinged, and she paused to check it quickly and then frantically turned on the television that was attached to the wall's corner behind her. She turned it on just in time for us to see a plane crashing into a building. And then, my teacher--a stern soccer coach--remained silent as tears fell down her cheeks. I had no context of this situation, no frame of reference. But Mrs. Smejkal, somber and voice shaky, filled us in as best as she could. She explained what the World Trade Center was and tried to inform us of the significance of this--of the devastation this would cause to our country. For the remainder of the day, we either watched the news or we forged on ahead with the day's lesson, but no other teacher even attempted to discuss the day's events with us.
Eleven years later I was in my own classroom when news broke of the Sandy Hook School Shooting. My kids were on their laptops researching for a poetry project, when a kid shouted out that there was a shooting at an elementary school. I attempted to regroup them, but they were genuinely concerned. So we stopped class and we all took the time to research and discuss what we were learning. We did this again in the spring of 2013 when we learned of the Boston Marathon bombings during our Comp II class. We researched together and then we talked to try and make sense of the atrocities. Now in our digital age of fast media, kids are learning of these devastating news stories while they are in school. I appreciate Mrs. Smejkal's talk with us on 9/11---she treated us like the young adults we were and allowed us to ask questions and talk.
Jon is not one of my high school students; he is six. But he heard the news reporter's preface, and he heard me gasp as I read about the terrorist attacks on Paris. "What, mom? What happened? What is it? Are you okay?" his questions rolled off his tongue too easily. He was genuinely concerned. I took pause to think about how to explain this to him in an appropriate way. We looked through his atlas to find Paris, France so he could have a frame of reference and some reassurance of how far away these atrocities are. Then I tried to explain the concept of terrorists (a person or group of people who kills those who don't agree with what they believe). We talked about why these are bad people. We talked about how some terrorists killed lots of people in Paris. I let him ask questions, and I tried my best to assure him that he was safe. We prayed for the people in France, and then he moved on to a new activity.
A few days later we were looking at his atlas again (the kid loves maps!) and he seemed worried.
"Buddy, what's wrong? Are you sad or worried?" I asked.
"Worried," he stated succinctly. I asked what he was worried about, and he replied, "I'm worried that what happened in France will happen to us. What if someone brings a bomb here?"
I knew these fears and questions would come, but still I wasn't prepared for them. It took me a while to respond. I never want to give my kids false hope or lie to them (they've had too much of that already), but he's too young for me to be totally honest.
"Bud, it's okay to be worried. I understand being worried about this. But our president and our military and our police are doing all they can to keep us safe. You are safe, okay?"
And as I said it, I wondered if what I said is true. I thought about Sandy Hook--my kids are in first grade--the same grade of many of the victims. I don't know that my kids are always safe, and it scares the shit out of me. I did my best to keep my voice level and calm, but later that night I cried because my kid is too young to be scared of bombs, to know about terrorists, to be afraid to die---and there's nothing I can do to protect him or ensure his safety 100% of the time. But...I can talk to them. I can be as honest as possible with them, and I can explain difficult concepts and allow them to ask questions. While I hope my kids have teachers as smart and compassionate as Mrs. Smejkal who will allow kids to talk about the tough stuff, as much as I can, I want my husband and I to be able to inform our kids of these devastating world events no matter how difficult it may be for us.