Published on June 8th, 2022 | by Jen Bryant0
Leave the Flags at Half-Staff
Now that the weather is getting warmer, my son and I have been going for walks in the evening. After spending our days in the airless confines of school and work, it feels good to get outside. We make lazy figure-eights through our neighborhood, surrounded by the signs of spring: birds chattering, kids wobbling by on too-big bikes, the smell of freshly-cut grass.
Recently, I can’t seem to shake the sense that I’m on borrowed time. 11th grade is drawing to a close in a flurry of exams, permission slips, and last-minute fees. Senior year looms on the other side of the impending summer, bringing with it the demands of college applications and future planning. They say childhood passes by before you know it, but right now, I’m hyper-aware of our place in the timeline. One more year, and my son will leave for college; his room will sit empty, and our evening walks will be a thing of the past. And so, when he pops his head into my room after dinner and asks, “Want to go for a walk?”, I shake off the exhaustion of the day, put my phone away, and lace up my battered sneakers.
At 17, my son is taller than I am, lanky and broad-shouldered. Although every now and then I still get glimpses of the baby he was, most of the little-kid softness has left his face. He’s overdue for a haircut; the edges are starting to curl up, waves springing forth that aren’t visible when it’s shorter. I resist the impulse to reach over and smooth the shaggy swoop of bangs that hangs over his forehead as I would have done when he was younger, shoving my hands into the pockets of my jacket instead. As we reach the end of the block, we fall into an easy rhythm, matching each other’s pace step for step without trying.
Plenty of teenagers barely speak to their parents, let alone want to spend time together. In that regard, I know I’m lucky. Tonight, I’m feeling extra grateful for this kid by my side, but for a different reason.
I was at work when my son’s father sent me a message: “Another school shooting.” Pulling up the news, I scanned the headline, then the text underneath: “Deadliest school shooting in the US since February.”
Photos of parents and surviving students accompanied the article, their faces twisted in shock and grief. I closed the article quickly, feeling a now-familiar mix of sadness, anger, and frustration.
It’s so peaceful on our walk. We talk about weekend plans, my son’s favorite teacher, and random Internet memes. I don’t bring up the shooting until he does.
“Did you hear?” he asks, turning his head to look at me.
“I did,” I reply. “It’s really awful.”
We talk for a while—about gun control, preventative measures, the senselessness of children in body bags. “They said this guy was making threats on Facebook. Why didn’t somebody stop him?” my son asks, bewildered. It’s a somewhat rhetorical question, that of the faceless somebodies that should do something, since no one can seem to agree on who, or what. We talk about that, too.
We reach the pond about a mile from our house, shoes crunching on the gravel path that circles the water. A duck herds her ducklings away from our approaching footsteps, fussing and flapping, urging them to hide in the face of danger and uncertainty. We mean them no harm, but sometimes it’s hard to tell friend from foe.
At 17 and 35, respectively, my son and I are sometimes mistaken for brother and sister. Although that misidentification is generous and doesn’t hold up on closer inspection, I guess I get it. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, the distance between Millennial kids and our Baby Boomer parents — fashion, music, philosophy — seemed vast. As a Millennial mom to a Gen Z kid, there’s a lot more generational overlap.
The narrow gap in our ages also means that my son and I share some cultural touchstones that older mothers of teenagers might not. One of these is being a student against the backdrop of school shootings.
I was a junior in high school when Columbine happened. I vividly remember the shock and horror that gripped the country as parents and educators scrambled for answers, solutions, and reassurances that it wouldn’t happen to their kids. In the aftermath, I watched as my goth friends were called down to the principal’s office for interrogation, one by one. Later, all of the students at my school were required to attend a hastily-thrown together assembly, where administrators told us to immediately report anything suspicious to a teacher or the school’s resource officer.
As teenagers do, my friends and I laughed it off, making callous jokes about how we wouldn’t mind getting a day off from school. It all seemed surreal. Our small Southern town, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, felt boring and safe; no way would something like that happen here.
A few weeks after Columbine, a kid in my journalism class got expelled after calling in what he thought was an anonymous threat. He tried to backpedal, saying he just wanted to get out of exams. A police search of his bedroom would soon lead investigators to believe otherwise. Among other things, he’d drawn a map of the school and crossed out all of the exits; the map was hidden under a stack of gun magazines, along with an incel-style manifesto directed at the popular girls in our grade. I remembered him as a quiet kid with sleepy eyes who blended into the background of every class discussion. He wasn’t cool, but he was accepted. I never would have imagined the hatred brewing inside his mind, nor what he might have been capable of.
As we complete the loop around the lake and head back toward the house, the sun sinks lower in the sky, illuminating the neighborhood in a dreamlike glow. My son and I fall silent. After a few minutes, I ask the question I’ve been avoiding. “So, with all this going on, when you’re at school…do you feel safe?” I look straight ahead, deliberately keeping my voice and face neutral, as though I’m asking about the weather or what he had for lunch.
“Oh, no,” my son answers quickly, declaratively. “I haven’t felt safe since J.S.”
He’s talking about the student at his school that was arrested a couple of years ago for plotting a mass shooting on campus. J.S. had it all planned out: diagrams, accomplices, even a getaway car. I choose not to imagine how differently things could have gone if another kid hadn’t overheard these plans and tipped the school off.
“The only time I felt safe recently was when we had that walkout,” my son continues, referring to a post-Parkland protest at his school. “There were like 600 kids in the cafeteria. I figured if anyone was going to try something, it would be then, but nothing happened, so I felt safe for, like…2 weeks after that.
“I had a plan, though,” he adds. “If someone did do something, I was going to hide behind the brick wall. The bullets wouldn’t be able to get through as easily. If that didn’t work, I was going to run. And if I couldn’t get away, I guess I would just use my backpack as a shield.”
I know which brick wall my son is referring to: a hip-height divider between the sunken cafeteria and the elevated hallway in his 70s-era school, adorned with a banner reading “Go Cats!” in bubbly teenage lettering. I picture the tan Formica cafeteria tables, and the posters taped to painted cinder block walls, advertising plays, fundraisers, and sports matches with rival schools. I think of the way that brick wall wouldn’t shield all 600 students, of how the short sprint from the cafeteria to the heavy metal front doors would suddenly seem like miles, footfalls echoing across the beige tile, perhaps drawing unwanted attention. I picture the well-worn navy blue backpack with the gray zipper pulls that my son has carried since middle school, now fraying at the seams, and know how little protection the dog-eared textbooks and nest of discarded snack wrappers inside would offer against a hail of bullets. Still, I nod, saying carefully, “It’s good to have a plan.”
Perhaps sensing my thoughts, my son adds, “Don’t worry, though—I would always fight, no matter what.”
Here, the mental images that have accompanied our conversation stop. I don’t want to imagine my tender-hearted son, who once spent half an hour capturing a bug in his room to carry it outside instead of squishing it, being forced to fight for his life against a school shooter.
I can’t adequately put into words the way it makes me feel to know that this is the world he lives in. It’s been two decades since Columbine, and despite it all—Sandy Hook, Parkland, and whatever’s next, for there will be a next time—we, as adults, are still failing these students. Kids are dying on national TV, and we’re changing the channel.
As we round the corner onto our street, I think about the parents who sent their kids off to school this morning without knowing it was the last time, all the childhood bedrooms that will sit empty not because of college but because of a bullet: textbooks and hairbrushes collecting dust, sweatshirts carelessly draped over desk chairs, pets waiting patiently for the sound of the school bus. I think about the weight these kids carry every day, heavier than backpacks or textbooks or even the enormity of deciding what to do with the rest of their lives after high school. I think about the parents of the gunman, too, wondering how long it’s been since they caught a glimpse of babyhood in his cheeks or an echo of the toddler he once was in the corners of his smile.
The title of this essay borrows from poet and mother Maggie Smith’s gut-wrenching poem “Half Staff.” Inspired in part by notes Smith took after Sandy Hook, the poem opens with:
Why don’t we leave
the flags at half-staff
& save ourselves
I originally drafted this essay in 2018. Between 2018 and 2022, there have been over a hundred school shootings in the US, a seemingly ceaseless bombardment of horror that slowed only briefly when schools were closed during Covid. In addition to schools, gunmen target other gathering places as well. It seems like there’s never long enough to catch our collective breath between attacks on our schools, nightclubs, workplaces, grocery stores, and houses of worship before another happens. Meanwhile, Republican politicians continue to line their pockets with NRA kickbacks even as parents bury their 10-year-old children. In many states, people as young as 18 can buy a gun before they’re even legally old enough to drink a beer.
In the face of constant gun violence, it’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed. Although other countries also deal with the issues that have been blamed for some of these attacks, the sheer volume of violent gun incidents is a uniquely American problem. Within that problem, then, lies a path toward a solution. How can we tighten our laws so that ill-intentioned folks have a harder time getting their hands on guns?
Grassroots groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety recommend common-sense regulations, such as comprehensive background checks for gun owners and mandatory waiting periods before purchase. The New York state legislature just passed several measures intended to curb gun violence, including raising the age limit to buy semiautomatic weapons from 18 to 21. And spurred by recent events in Buffalo and Uvalde, multiple towns across the US have recently announced gun buyback programs, intended to reduce the number of weapons in private ownership. These changes won’t fix things overnight, but they’re as good a place as any to start.
In the years that have passed since the original draft of this essay was written, my son has graduated high school. There were no other incidents at his school before he moved on to college, where he’s now a rising senior. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t breathe a little easier once he left high school, although college campuses, too, can turn deadly.
Right now, my son is home for summer break. As we share ordinary, everyday moments — dinners, road trips, evening walks — I can’t help thinking of the parents who lost children to gun violence, and who will never get to see their kids grow up. Against all odds, I’m hopeful that this moment will be different, and that real, lasting change will come. I want my son, and all the rest of us, to live in a world where it makes sense to keep the flags raised for longer stretches at a time.