More frequently than this I would like to be ushered hospitably and gently back into the world each morning. A warm welcome for a valued guest from the front desk and the groundskeeper tipping his hat in the sun. Instead now being hauled out of the driver side window and tossed onto the smashed glass by the constables who govern my awakenings. Even these imaginary ones corrupt and abusive.
A few weeks ago I asked how people have been feeling of late about the grim spectre of sudden gun violence haunting us all. Whether or not anything has changed about how they carry themselves in the world over the past few years. Many of you wrote in to explain in this piece here.
One typical response went like so:
I'm a university professor, and when I teach I have my eyes on the doors constantly now. It started six or seven years ago. I actually had a course I taught moved last year because they put me in a room whose doors were behind the podium. I'm not a moron, I know if a guy comes in with a gun I'm done for. I'm too flabby and stupid to believe I'd stand a chance playing the hero. But you never, ever catch me facing away from the door of a classroom, not even in meetings or at lunch or whatever. For what it’s worth it's not intentional either. It's like looking both ways before I cross the street. It's just automatic
In today's feature Kevin Koczwara writes about his experience as a parent trying to navigate how to keep his young children safe in an era of school shootings while not hiding them from the truth of how things really are in America.
"Who can drop their kid off in America today and not fear the worst?" he writes.
"Who can go to a mall or a concert or any place really without second guessing the decision? Who would bring a child into this world? Who would bring something so precious as a child into a place filled with hate and violence? My wife and I have. Two little kids — seven and four years old now — who weren’t alive for Sandy Hook or Columbine or Texas Tech or any of the hundreds of other mass shootings before they were born. But they’ve been around for enough mass murders that it feels like they’re possibly numb to it already."
On the matter of school shootings here's a story from my new book that I've shared in here before but many of you will still not have read so feel free to remedy that presently.
Thanks for sending in your pictures of the book with a mouse both living and plastic.
Is there a story about mice in the book I know you might be wondering. Well you're in luck pal. It goes in part like this:
The first trap I inspected the next morning looked empty but when I got closer I saw a tiny little mouse leg attached to the glue like the mouse must have chewed its own leg off to get away and I felt pretty shitty about that. The second one worked a little too well because it had three separate mice all piled on top of one another. The largest mouse had its face half submerged in the glue and one eye staring up at me like it knew me from before or something like we had had a disagreement which I guess we did now. The two smaller ones seemed like they must’ve gotten caught trying to help and Brad came over and gave me a look like see I told you and I said what are you the manager of killing mice? So what do I do now I said because they were all still alive and clearly having a very bad time of things in the glue there.
He said you have to kill them and I said how and he said smash their heads in but I didn’t want to do that so I filled up the one big pasta pot we have with water from the bathtub and carried it outside with the mice in my other hand like a wilted bouquet and I saw the neighbor playing in the snow again this time with her son over there too and the soldiers were still poking around the bins and I thought that doesn’t seem right and the boy came over and asked me what I was doing and I said I was setting them free so they didn’t have to suffer anymore and I dropped the trap with the three mice into the water and a little steam came off their bodies and they sunk and it was over pretty quickly all things considered. I took out my phone to take a picture and thought about sending it to Apollonia so she would respect me and come over but then thought better of it.
I keep waiting for it to happen to us
by Kevin Koczwara
The other night my son woke up screaming. This is not uncommon for him. He’s four and afraid and he doesn't like to sleep alone. Plus he has growing pains.
I had growing pains as a child too. I’d wake to a shooting sensation in my feet and the feeling of my shins splintering. My father would rub my feet and bring me a banana, if we had any, for the potassium. It worked. I do the same now.
When he wakes up crying I go to my son’s room and lay down next to him in his twin-size bed. I squeeze his feet in one hand while the other rests, waiting its turn.
On this night I figured the cries were for me to go in and rub his feet. He’d been complaining about his legs all day. He’s growing more than usual. Small, like I was, he’s finally beginning to fit into clothes that are sized for his age. Soon he will be five and again his clothes will be a year behind.
But this wasn’t that. I asked him what was wrong and he said he'd had a bad dream so I crawled in next to him. My phone said 4:30 am. Only two hours before my alarm. Work. School. I tucked him in and put my arm across his body.
“It’s ok. I’m here. You’re ok.”
A day earlier, March 27, 2023, someone had walked into an elementary school and killed six people. Three nine-year-olds. Three adults. The shooting at the The Covenant School, a Presbyterian private school in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, was the 129th mass shooting in America in only 88 days. The murderer, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, was shot and killed by police.
At the time of the killings, Hale was under a doctor’s care for an unspecified emotional disorder. They had also been stockpiling weapons. Police, who released dramatic body camera footage of their response and subsequent killing of Hale, were warned an hour earlier about Hale’s social media messages to a former classmate.
“You’ll probably hear about me on the news after I die,” Hale wrote in the messages.
In 2021 Tennessee loosened its gun restrictions. The state's legislature approved a law that allows most adults to carry a handgun without receiving a permit, making it the 19th state with similar laws that waive carry permit requirements. According to reports the local police did not support the changes.
Then it happened. It had to happen. A matter of time. There’s no avoiding it now. We’ve come a long way since the Columbine shooting in 1999.
I remember where I was the day Columbine happened — at a daycare/babysitter’s house after school in seventh grade. It felt uniquely horrible, like something that would never happen again. Now survivors of school shootings grow up to report on the news from the scene of other school shootings. Survivors of one mass shooting become bystanders for a second.
When Columbine happened, people in charge blamed music, movies, video games. Culture, they said, was at fault. They began to examine bullying and the harms it caused. They looked everywhere except for the guns. Now we have book-banning, anti-woke warriors trying to fight against history and fill us with fear, all the while handing out more and more guns.
The doors at my daughter’s public school in Worcester, Massachusetts weren’t open. Usually the school is punctual, but not this morning.
Parents sat in their cars and stood on the sidewalk with their children. A few kids ran on the small patch of grass in front. They played. They laughed. Traffic moved. The crossing guard stood nearby with her stop sign in hand. The sun warmed the cool morning. I walked my daughter to the door where one of her kindergarten teachers waits every morning to greet her and her classmates with an “hola” but there was no one there.
We stood for a few minutes with two other parents and two of my daughter’s classmates. It felt like an eternity.
The day before that yet another mass murder had happened in a school like my daughter’s. Nineteen kids and two teachers were gunned down in a horrible and all too predictable massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. It could have been my daughter’s school. It could have been any school anywhere. Well, in America that is. Anywhere in America.
I told my daughter to put her mask on. Covid never really went away despite how little people talk about it now. That’s another thing to worry about. This is life now. Every day panic sets in: what could happen next? Despite crime rates steadily falling, the fear is more palpable.
A father nearby told his son that they would go try another door. He had to get to work he said and couldn’t wait much longer. His son protested until the other parent and I took our children and started for the other door as well. No one else said anything but we were all thinking about it. Would we dare bring up how a classroom of school children had just been gunned down? Would we talk about America’s obsession with killing each other at a time when we’re being lectured about the sanctity of life? The parents in their cars held on, as fearful as the rest of us, and unwilling to let their child out of sight.
Who can drop their kid off in America today and not fear the worst? Who can go to a mall or a concert or any place really without second guessing the decision? Who would bring a child into this world? Who would bring something so precious as a child into a place filled with hate and violence? My wife and I have. Two little kids — seven and four years old now — who weren’t alive for Sandy Hook or Columbine or Texas Tech or any of the hundreds of other mass shootings before they were born. But they’ve been around for enough mass murders that it feels like they’re possibly numb to it already.
Or maybe I just haven’t explained it well enough to them because I don’t know how.
The door opened as we turned down the sidewalk towards the original door. My daughter's teacher stood there. You could sense the unease.
That morning before we left a call had gone out from the school. It was the Worcester superintendent reassuring everyone that the school was safe. That they had a plan in place. But there can be no reasonable plan while there is still no reasonable explanation for the violence we have decided to live with. The call felt more chilling than helpful.
My daughter started for the door before turning around and running to me to give me one last big hug. She grabbed my leg.
“I love you daddy. Bye.”
I told her I loved her too. I said have a good day at school.
The day before we were at gymnastics when the Uvalde news broke.
My children were on the other side of the plexiglass window. They looked sweet in their leotards — my son insists on wearing one of his big sister’s outfits with a pair of shorts. Today it’s blue and paired with orange shorts. I forgot to put his long, blonde hair in a ponytail. His teacher, a wonderful woman he called “the blond lady” for months, but now knows her name, put one in for him. She’s better at it than I am.
I sat in the room with my book out in the hopes of reading, but I kept nodding off. Exhausted for any of the numerous reasons that parents get tired in the mid-afternoon. The others around me talked about competitions and coaches. They conversed about their jobs and when their spouse would be home.
I pulled up Twitter on my phone, a horrible habit I’ve been trying to curb. There it was in my feed.
No one around me knew or, if they did, wanted to share that they knew. People on their phones scrolled through Facebook and Instagram. A few played some sort of game. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I checked the news again. I searched for answers. I texted a friend who I knew would be up on it. She lost a family member ten years earlier at Sandy Hook. It felt right to quietly talk to someone who also felt powerless and exhausted and angry.
Then there was an update: at least 14 kids dead. Fourth graders. Tears formed in my eyes. I needed to breathe.
My son finished his class and ran to me. He had a sticker on his hand for the great work he put in.
“Look at my sticker, Daddy,” he said. It was jelly on a slice of bread.
I gave him some water while he sat next to me and waited for his sister. Usually I have a few toys and some coloring activities for him to do in the meantime. Today I forgot them. We left in a rush to get his sister from school and I’d forgotten his toys in our rapid exit. Almost always he asks to play with another little girl there. He calls her “my friend.” He doesn’t know her name and I don’t either.
I checked my phone again. The news seemed impossible moments ago. I needed to see if it was true. My son continued talking about his sticker. About the jelly. He wanted his older sister to see it. He watched another kid from his class get ready to go home. Still no one else seemed to know. The rage inside me began to grow. I needed to get out. Usually my son likes to go off and run around with some other kids. I try to keep him close because it’s not really a place for that. But for whatever reason, without toys and without running, he stayed next to me. He sensed something. He felt my fear and my sadness. When my daughter’s class ended, I implored my kids to get ready.
“Daddy doesn’t have it in him today, guys,” I said as they got their shoes on.
“Why?” my daughter asked.
She likes to ask why about everything still. She has endless questions about how tadpoles turn into frogs and how the blue whale gets to be so big and what pork butt is and why people are mean to each other. Often I don’t know the answer. Sometimes the question will lead us down a never ending path of question and answer that wears me out. One day she asked me what capitalism and greed are. I answered the best I could, explaining how the rich and the powerful want to hold on to being rich and powerful while convincing the rest of us to fight for the scraps.
“But why would they not treat everyone nice?”
I told her I didn’t know.
That happened after gymnastics one day too, of course. They always have questions after gymnastics. Today was no different. They had questions about my mood. I tried to explain that some people are bad and that sometimes bad things happen and it makes daddy sad and I wish I could help more and how I wish…
It went like that until I shut off my brain.
I can’t remember what I said, but I know I didn’t tell them that a gunman had murdered kids their age that afternoon. That the police stood by with their big guns and all their power and did little to stop it, because in America it’s about having power over the powerless, and that sometimes means letting some children die in yet another massacre. One that could have been avoided if we didn’t fetishize guns and gun culture.
I turned on some loud music and asked them to be quiet for a few minutes.
At some point after Uvalde there was a tweet that went viral because of its stupidity. It said something along the lines of “Imagine having to explain gender and non-binary to a child. How can you do that?” I thought about it for a moment because it’s something I often think about. I spend a lot of my waking hours wondering how I can explain this vast and ever-expanding world to my kids. The answer I came up with seemed easy: people are who they are. We shouldn’t judge them on that.
The harder questions, of course, are the abstract things like money and wealth, greed, power and violence. What is healthcare? Shouldn’t everyone be able to see a doctor or get the medicine they need? Why does their uncle need to be on the phone with the insurance company to get his insulin all the time? Why do people want to kill one another? Why do we give them guns to do that? Why don’t we love one another? Kids ask these kinds of questions all the time and I’m left to explain that we can only control ourselves. We can try to help. We can love. We can feel. But then, it happens again. Another massacre.
The number of dead in Texas rose to 19 children and two teachers. No one signed up for this. No parent agreed to have to have these discussions. No school teacher ever went into the profession wanting to become a body shield.
The night before the shooting in Uvalde, my wife was away at a conference for work. I had the kids to myself. We did the bedtime routine. Usually my wife or I lay down with our son, but I had a phone call I needed to take and my wife was away. I told them I’d be back after the call and that they could read quietly in their beds. They grabbed some books. I could hear them moving around through a monitor. But they stayed quiet. A minor miracle. It never happens. There’s always a fight or an argument or my son jumping off his bed. When I went upstairs after my call I found them asleep together in my daughter’s bed. She’d comforted her younger brother and helped him fall asleep. I couldn’t believe it. I took their picture and sent it to my wife.
As we drove home from gymnastics, I thought of them falling asleep together. How sweet they were. How beautiful life seemed. The thought gave me hope and filled me with dread. I can’t protect my kids in the way we want to or think we can because in America we’ve decided that protecting a fetus is more important than protecting the children we already have. Massacres are just part of living here. This great and free country.
My wife and I had discussed having kids. We got married and made a plan. We waited a few years. We wanted to be settled and ready. Can you ever be ready? I don’t think so, but you can try. The only thing you can do is try.
When our daughter was nearly three, we decided to try again. Two kids was the right number. It happened. Quickly. But in all those conversations we never thought about the possibility of our kids being murdered. Who thinks about that? Who thinks about climate destruction when making these decisions? If we had, we probably would have rethought the whole premise of children. What world are we bringing them into where at any moment they can be vaporized? We’ve tried our best not to live in fear. To not be helicopter parents. But it’s hard not to fear the worst as every day a new horror arrives. I keep waiting for it to happen to us. I don’t know any other way than to fear the worst. At this point, who can do anything else? This is the land of prayers and guns.
Another call arrived in the evening from the superintendent. She let everyone know the schools were safe, again. She assured parents the schools had a plan. The shooting the other day in Texas would not happen here. School psychologists were on hand if students needed it.
We’d put our kids to bed by then. My wife and I hadn’t talked about what happened in Texas yet. We hadn’t discussed it with our kids either. When is the right time to drop that kind of information? Is there a right time? Not really. It will happen soon out of necessity. How can you hide that from them as they start to do “active shooter drills” and their teachers are told to talk to them about the possibility of a gun being pointed at them? You can’t. We can’t.
Today, the United States has more guns than people. Yet some have been convinced that we need more guns. More. More. More. It’s the American way, after all. We’ve been fed the stories about standing up to the government (with their fighter jets, and tanks and missiles) and the Second Amendment. The narrative never changes. The outcomes for our deceit have only become clearer. More guns has meant more deaths.
You may have seen the chart. It shows that when the Assault Rifle ban lapsed in 2004, almost like magic, the number of mass shootings increased. It’s there for us all to see. But the delusion continues.
After the massacre at The Covenant School, reporters asked Tennessee congressman Tim Burchett what could be done to stop this madness.
“Three precious little kids lost their lives, and I believe three adults, I believe, and the shooter of course, lost their life too. So, it’s a horrible, horrible situation. And, we’re not gonna fix it,” Burchett said, acknowledging what we all already knew after Parkland, after Sandy Hook, after every shooting every other day. They’re not going to fix it. When answering a hypothetical about Burchett’s own children, he said this wouldn’t happen because his child is homeschooled.
What Burchett and others fail to see is not the carnage. They have long accepted that. The thing they say they’re protecting is family values, or "the family." What they miss is what guns do to the family.
“I don’t want to be an only child,” a sibling of one of the dead nine-year-olds said during a memorial service in Tennessee.
My wife and I still have not told our children about what happened in Tennessee. That it had happened again. How do we tell them again? They love their school. I don’t want to ruin it for them. And yet we know it will keep happening. We can’t hide them from it. We won’t hide it from them.
We told them about Uvalde. We told them about Buffalo. We told them about the world. We watched January 6 together as a family. The news on the TV. I couldn’t hide it from them. We’ve talked about how we treat each other. We’ve talked about the dangers of guns. I tell them they won’t have guns in this house. No toy guns. No Nerf guns. There’s no pretending to shoot with your fingers pointed in an “L” aimed at someone, even a bad guy.
There are endless jokes about never sleeping again after having children. They’re the worst kind of cliche. “Get your sleep now,” people will tell you.
I quickly grew tired of those comments when we were expecting our first child. Yes, I get it, babies and children wear you out. And they don’t sleep like you want them too. There are nights spent awake. There are delirious days. There are sick kids. Kids in your bed. Bad dreams. Growing pains.
What no one can warn you about is that you’re tired not because the hours of sleep diminish but because the kind of sleep you get isn’t the same. Deep sleep does not exist for some of us anymore. I hear every creak in the house now. I drift off and yet still listen for their cries at night, hoping to bounce out of the bed to make sure they’re alright.
I asked my father about this soon after our second child was born.
“When did you start to sleep again?” I asked.
Kevin Koczwara is a journalist in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has written for Esquire, The New York Times, Men’s Health, Vice and many other places.
Thanks as always for reading. Subscribe if you can! Now please enjoy a song for the road. It's been ten years since this classic came out. Still ahead of its time.