Jan 22, 2016

Empty threats

As I collected my 9 year old from school, he excitedly whispered in my ear...."The dog ate my biscuit!"

The bright little face turned up towards me was expectant. The problem was, as with most of Oyons non-sequiturs, I had no idea what he was talking about! 

 "The bomb sniffing dog, Mummum!" He said, a touch exasperated, "The one they sent to school yesterday after the bomb threat?" He was skipping around in excitement.

"Aah, yes...yesterday's bomb scare. When your class evacuated." I confirmed.

"Yeah, yeah! It was snack time and I left a half eaten cookie on my desk but this morning when we returned to class, everything was just as I'd left it on my desk except ......?" he trailed off dramatically.

"The cookie!" we chorused together.

"I think the bomb dog barked at a cabinet then, when the police were looking for a bomb in it, it ran over and gobbled up my snack!" he announced triumphantly.

I tried not to snort out loud at the thought of this unlikely comedy happening within the grave scenario that unfolded this Tuesday. The bomb threat (which was explicit and horrifying in some cases) was called in to 15 Massachusetts schools and 9 in New Jersey, leading to emergency evacuations. Fear and anxiety abounded before the hoax was confirmed. It was not funny in the least. Liz describes it really well (and with her usual, sanity-saving hilarity) here. But I smiled and nodded attentively at my fanciful 9 year old as he chattered away.

My mind drifted to how unexpected our stress reactions have become.

By common consensus 911 was the watershed event (in my time) of American life that permanently altered our sense of security. Yet it wasn't until the Sandy Hook school shooting (in Newtown, Connecticut) that my  personal world developed a little wobble on its axis. It's not that I didn't feel for other horrific school assaults that came before, but I wasn't a parent then. I see now that my concerns had been academic at best. I thought seriously on issues of gun control, bullying and the lack of mental health services, but it hadn't elicited a lasting, visceral reaction like it did now. Yet another reminder that for most of us, things get real only when we have skin in the game.

Yet despite the keen horror of it, today, terror alarms come with a note of familiarity; we are seasoned - if somewhat numbed - by everything that's come before. After all, we were in a lock-down at home after the April 2013 Boston marathon bombing. The suspects were on the run (armed and dangerous) and our home fell within the radius of chase. Reverse-911 calls throughout the day warned us to stay inside and away from windows and in case of emergency travel, to not pull over for anyone.  

Later that year, 20 seven-year-olds in Sandy Hook, Connecticut (only an hour's drive away) were killed in their first grade classrooms, triggering periodic 'Active Shooter' training drills in our elementary schools. We started to prepare for what was becoming almost commonplace in America.

Sometime after, a teenager lost his life in a shootout that took place on our block. It wasn't the first one. Gun control laws remain practically unchanged through all of this.

And then there's the rest of the world, that we can't seem to hide from anymore. Plane crashes (everything from disappearance to shoot-downs) which are suddenly relevant because Oyon's father travels so often. Terror attacks in other first world 'safe' cities (London, Paris) which raise the importance we attach to Govt. issued, color coded Threat Alerts. Global epidemics that have touched our region several times, from Avian Flu through Ebola ensuring that public health precautions are no longer academic.

These are not just the imagined exaggerations of fearful minds (like the myth of sexual predators cruising every suburban block), but real dangers that have been realized close to us. Vigilance is necessary. And it's all, just....terrifying!

What can one do in these times but develop a reflex for moderation?

I've learnt to tackle fear head on with Oyon, to teach him to seek the other side of things, the silver linings that will give us strength to cope and act postively. 
- We've celebrated trained reactions that keep us safe: Missing flight but not hope.
- I've helped him parse alarmist news to extract the truth: News Graphs.
- He has located compassion when tragedies unfold: Not remembering.

During Tuesday's crisis, School administrators handled things with such professionalism, kindness and efficiency that I was able to level with Oyon that though this was all a hoax, now they now know EXACTLY how a real emergency feels (should one ever arise). And it's really not that bad.

Oyon was back on the "Mystery of the Missing Cookie" now, expounding farther on how exactly the bomb sniffing pooch purloined Oyon's snack. He claims his popcorn went the same way.

"Hmm. I don't know..." I commented with just enough skepticism to indicate that I was actually thinking about it, taking him seriously.

"But Mummum, how else would you explain my missing cookie?! I KNOW I only took one bite but today.....only crumbs left! And everyone knows dogs LURVE biscuits!

I'm so often in this state when this boy is around: torn between giggles and sighs. But every so often, he brings me a healthy dose of Perspective too. That day it was: whatever threats I perceive are mine and mine only...not HIS. I remember this startling realization from the first 'lockdown drill' after the Newtown shooting too.

There's also the reality check my Privilege brings me: that the world I find myself in has appeared 'safe' to me due to my lenses of privilege. I am fortunate enough to be in a demographic that feels entitled to health, safety and plenty as their well-earned rewards (disregarding the accident of birth). Those who do not share my fortune of education, opportunities and good luck, I imagine have a very different view of things. I'm well acquainted with fatalistic acceptance of  preventable outcomes in India, in poverty ridden demographics of folks who've never really known agency. It's the very opposite of entitlement.

But for us, who feel entitled, the loss of that level of security stings.

Add to the mix, my immigrant viewpoint. I come from a country of over-stressed resources where there was little to no expectation from government. Corruption, inefficiency and small dangers (from water, infrastructure, healthcare etc) were baseline realities in the India I left two decades ago. Things have improved considerably today of course, even if Time is frozen in my head.

Perhaps people like me cling a bit harder to the 'safety' and reliability that our adopted countries award us. Perhaps we perceive a farther fall to reality from having felt we'd escaped it once. The crumbling state of things seems both familiar (from a past life) as well as unacceptable (in this new life). In all honesty, I was as privileged in India as I am here, so my struggles were and are, more intellectual than real. I know this is armchair philosophizing that awards me no laurels.

To my American child though, Reality is a world peppered with everyday dangers that he is equipped to handle. It's his only normal and he's really not fazed by it at all. As long as he's been a sentient being, there have been shooting deaths and terror attacks: there has been no paradigm shift to unsettle him, the way it has me.

And that's the key I think, to us parents, keeping our heads. However bad things seem...they're not! Certainly, gun control needs to improve as does foreign policy, but I can't do much about either other than cast my votes thoughtfully in hope of better leadership.  We are still lucky enough to live in a society where safety nets abound and compassion surrounds us.

Case in point:
Wednesday, the day after the kids so traumatically ran from their classrooms, Oyon's wonderful 3rd grade class teacher, Ms. Najarian, gave her students these cardboard stars:

Her acknowledgement of their bravery.

They could decorate them however they'd like so
Oyons wrote random Harry Potter spells on his: Avada Kedavra (the horrible-st of the 'Unforgivable curses'), Expelliarmus (the Disarming Charm he wishes everyday, was real), Jelly Legs Jinx, Accio and Cruciatus.

The significance wasn't lost on me.

He's really not been very engaged in the series beyond book 3 ("The Prisoner of Azkaban") though he's plowing through them anyway. That he chose to invoke the spells right now, makes sense. The literature steeps kids in a world where young folk battle danger but more importantly, they fight Fear. These are fitting role models for our children as they square up to a world around them that often thrums with danger.

I realized through my distracted day-dreaming that Oyon, walking by my side, had become suddenly quiet. Perhaps anxiety about the stressful day was catching up with him? I know some kids had been scared, even though teachers continue to calmly refer to the whole incident as a fire drill.

"Are you ok with what happened yesterday, Oyon?" I gently asked

"Yeah sure, but I don't know about that dog. I just remembered: my cookie was a chocolate 'Bourbon' and chocolate can make dogs sick!" he said with concern etched on his open, trusting face.

The difference in scale of our individual worries can be astounding. I hugged him around the shoulder with one arm as we exited the warm school foyer and deliberately moved the conversation onto the marvel that is the Canine Digestive System. By the time he was buckling himself into the car, we were giggling over the odd things known to have poked out of dog poop and had started wondering what we'd call our dog, when we got one. 

The day ended like every day: homework tussles, too much screen time, lots of toy cars'n'planes littered everywhere and a long bed-time read-out-loud session of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix". 

Voldemort is back and hunting Harry, who remains unfazed. 

Just like my boy.

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