Thursday, October 16, 2014

That's a mom's job, isn't it?

Janet Kay Jensen's photo.
Our youngest
During the first Gulf War (during the presidency of George H.W. Bush) I was home and CNN was on the television. I was watching events unfold in the middle east, clueless about the events unfolding two miles away, at my children’s school. They attended Edith Bowen Laboratory School on Utah State University’s campus.
It was an ordinary drab winter day—very cold and gray, with last week’s dirty snow piled at least a foot deep on the side of the road.
An anonymous phone call was made to administrators, warning that a bomb had been set on campus and would explode in two hours. Hasty evacuations took place, and the university’s antiquated phone system broke under the strain of the unprecedented number of calls to and from campus as faculty, staff and students made hasty arrangements and left campus. I am told traffic was crazy, and I believe it. This was long before cell phones were available, so everyone was dependent on land lines. 
The principal at Edith Bowen School, ever unflappable, entered the lunchroom. She silenced the children and told them in a very calm voice that they should return to their classrooms, gather their coats and backpacks, and follow their teachers to a nearby church. Though the children were puzzled, they followed instructions and an orderly evacuation took place as they walked to the church and were ushered into the gym. Church offices were unlocked so administrators could phone parents to pick up their children.
For some reason, I wasn’t called, and I had no idea what was happening until my husband came home from lunch and told me about the bomb threat that had emptied the campus. Where were the boys? I asked, and he didn’t know. A call to a friend clarified their location, and I drove to the church to pick them up.
My fifth grader had played basketball, but when the numbers of students dwindled as their parents arrived, he admitted he’d become apprehensive. “I was okay until you didn’t come,” he said in a quiet voice. My kindergartener, always talkative, was relieved to see me, too, and we headed home, talking about the events of the day. I tried to reassure them that the call had been a hoax and that sometimes “things like that happen. People make bad choices. And there actually wasn’t a bomb. But your principal and the teachers knew exactly what to do to keep you safe, and they did it.”
Spring came, and then summer, and before we knew it school was about to start again. My youngest began to express anxiety about school. This was puzzling, as he loved school. He was never specific about his worries; he just said wasn’t ready to go back to school.
The inevitable first day of school dawned, and with some reluctance he got ready, donning his new clothes and shouldering his backpack. Just before we reached the parking lot he said, “Mom, if there’s a bomb...” and I realized he’d been more shaken than I'd known by the experience of the past January, and was worried that something like it, or worse, could happen. So instead of checking in to his new classroom, we went straight to the principal’s office and explained that Jeff wasn’t happy about school starting because he was concerned about the possibility of a bomb. His principal (he’d always said that “she knows the children in her heart”) quickly recognized his fears and spoke frankly to him. She didn’t promise him that nothing bad would ever happen at school; instead, wisely, she simply told him that, just as they had the previous winter, in case of any emergency, all of the teachers knew exactly what to do to keep everyone safe.
That seemed to allay his fears and first grade went smoothly. Soon he was in fifth grade, his last year in elementary school, and his class was preparing to travel to the Teton Science School near Jackson, Wyoming. As their departure neared, he said he didn’t want to go. This was puzzling again, as he was a confident traveler and his class had prepared for Science School all year. Again, I consulted his principal, this time in private.
“We’ve left them with sitters before,” I said, “so I’m not sure why he’s feeling anxious about going to science camp.”
“Yes,” she said, “but has HE ever left YOU before?” Bingo. No, he’d never left us, and she had recognized exactly what was causing his apprehension. Again, she talked with him calmly and assured him that if he wanted to come home at any point during the week, all he had to do was call her, day or night, and she would drive to Jackson (about four hours away) and bring him home. He relaxed visibly and happily packed for camp. His week at Teton Science School came and went and he had a great time. All he needed was some reassurance from an intuitive person he trusted.
Soon after he got home, I emptied his backpack to sort out the clutter and found a note: “Remember, if you need me, call me, and I’ll come to Science School and bring you home,” the note said. “Love, Miss Rhees.”
Thank you again, Miss Rhees.
Janet Kay Jensen's photo.
Edith Bowen Laboratory School

Today, twenty years later, an anonymous email was sent to a number of departments and individuals on campus. The sender wrote that if tomorrow’s the scheduled speaker, an outspoken feminist, was allowed to give her planned speech, a killing spree would ensue. Administrators decided not to cancel the event, but to add security personnel and to ban backpacks from the building where the speech would be given. But when the speaker learned that Utah law allows concealed weapons to be carried on school campuses and grants permits for this, she canceled her speech.
Janet Kay Jensen's photo.
Utah State University's Old Main Building in the snow
I wonder, before the cancellation, how many students phoned home for reassurance and said, “Mom, if there’s a gun…”
I wish I could sum this up with a profound statement that would link these three events together and provide insight and wisdom and possible solutions. And above all, to give reassurance. But I can't. And that's a mom's job, isn't it?
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