Who do you become when you are a child drilled to look for school exits and places to hide?

·5 min read

There’s a favorite game of little children. You know the one. They run and hide in plain sight and, because they can’t see us, they assume they’re invisible.

We can see their feet or the top of their heads, maybe their entire bodies. We hear their giggles, too, as we call their names and act as if we have no idea where they might be. Their view is obstructed and so they believe they have disappeared.

I keep thinking about this silly game. I played it with my children, and now I’m at it again with our eight grandchildren, one by one, as they’ve learned to walk and talk and discover the joy of pretending they are lost.

As if we would ever let them out of our sight.

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But we do, of course. Soon enough, we entrust them to day cares and preschools and drop them off to kindergarten. We stand on street corners and wave as their school buses pull away, five days a week.

This is our job, we tell ourselves. We are supposed to help them become independent of us, one tiny step at a time. We send them off with smiles and an often rushed “I love you.” We assure them of our reunion at day’s end.

Not a care in the world, sweet babies.

Now, once again, here we are, feeling as if we’re the ones pretending.

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Always looking for exits, 'just in case'

A gunman locked the door of a single classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and began shooting. He killed 19 children, ages 7 to 10. He also killed two adults who loved them.

If our semester had not yet ended, my college students would remind me, yet again, that they have never known a time when children were not killed in schools. For years now, they’ve been describing how they never enter a classroom or crowded event without scoping the room for exits and places to hide.

“Just in case,” they say, like a mantra.

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What becomes of the child who grows up looking for the exit? Who are they if, in their most impressionable years, they were taught to hide from an imaginary gunman? If a 6-year-old has already learned how to cower in a public bathroom – lock the stall, stand on the toilet to hide your little feet – how can they possibly grow up believing this world is theirs to conquer?

We’re seeing the photos now. Pictures of the children who were killed on Tuesday. Like all children, their faces are so full of life.

Wisps of hair across chubby cheeks. Knobby knees set to run. Eyebrows arched in perennial wonder.

All those bright lights, gone.

A mission to help on a harrowing day

On Wednesday, I spoke with the Rev. Jay Height, who runs Shepherd Community Center in urban Indianapolis. I wanted to talk to him after hearing that a SWAT team would soon train there.

The center serves the community in every imaginable capacity, from feeding the hungry to helping the addicted, to helping with legal aid and tax prep. At the heart of its mission are the 325 children who arrive every day, from newborn to high school, and the elementary-age kids in its school.

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Soon, in the week between the end of school and the beginning of summer programming, a local police SWAT team will arrive at the center for its fifth year of training in one of the buildings. “They do scenarios,” Height told me. “Some of our staff will be participants. They’ll have a hostage situation; they’ll have victims through the building.”

It’s always harrowing. In light of the Texas school massacre, he said, this training session will be even more jarring.

“It’s a horrific day because I sit in my office and listen to them yelling out commands and hear the gunfire (blanks). We want to be good partners and help them, but I’ll tell you, in light of yesterday.” His voice trailed off for a moment. “I’m a grandpa. I’m 56; got nine grandkids. There’s a grandpa in Texas today that’s weeping.”

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Connie Schultz is an Opinion columnist for USA TODAY.
Connie Schultz is an Opinion columnist for USA TODAY.

This is necessary training, he said. “We live in a neighborhood of violence. One of the things that broke my heart is watching those kids.” His voice cracked as he recalled the images of Tuesday’s shootings. “Why does an 8-year-old have to run for their life?”

Who do you become when you are a child who has to run as fast as you can from a gunman in your school? How do you ever trust the world again when you are still in elementary school but can recite a list of classmates who were shot dead just down the hall?

On the day after the shootings, Rev. Jay Height arrived at work at his usual time, about 7:40 a.m.

“What were your thoughts as you entered the building?” I asked.

“I wept on my way in,” he said.

In the background, I could hear the voices of children.

USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

Marc Murphy/Contributing cartoonist for The Courier Journal
Marc Murphy/Contributing cartoonist for The Courier Journal

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: School shooting lessons are taught in class. That's OK for our kids?

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