Welcome to 21st century parenting.
First, by way of background.
Shannon and I had gone to look at colleges back in April of 2013. We drove down to Clemson, toured University of South Carolina, and swung by Penn State on the way home. We did all that in one crazy 48 hour period. We were racing the clock to get back to see Shannon’s sister Allie run the Boston Marathon. We arrived home 2:30 am on April 15th—plenty of time to get a few hours of sleep and then do some marathon viewing! The plan was that we would watch the marathon and she would then hop back in the car with her dad as soon as the marathon ended and visit two more schools out in the Midwest, Ohio State and Purdue University.
Purdue was where she ended up going. And freshman year, there was a school shooting on her campus.
In the hours between our trip to the southern schools and her planned trip to the midwest schools was the Boston Marathon. The one where two bombs exploded. Just about our entire family of six was at the finish line when the two bombs went off, all except for Allie, who was running the marathon and a few blocks from the finish line. Shannon’s Purdue visit was delayed a day while our family recoiled from what we had all just been through. Instead of leaving that afternoon, Shannon, her dad and her oldest sister waited until the following morning. Shannon’s ears were still ringing and she was experiencing headaches as they drove off. I then headed to the emergency room, one of several visits I would have to make for a shrapnel injury to my leg.
Shannon hated Purdue University on that visit. The tour was bad, the weather cold, she was exhausted and still experiencing headaches. Still, she went to Purdue because even though she didn’t like it, they liked her; and even though she was accepted at most of the other colleges, she got more financial aid from Purdue. It all came down to economics, which, unironically, is what she is majoring in.
Luckily Shannon adapts easily, met friends, loves the school. But she had a really bad day in January of her freshmen year, when a fellow student at the college, Cody Cousins, opened fire in an Engineering classroom, killing another student, Andrew Boldt.
Shannon was in her communications class in a nearby building when it happened. The class immediately went on lockdown. For an hour and a half, they sat in the classroom—receiving information that turned out to be mostly wrong. News would trickle in—there were two shooters. Three. The shooters were still roaming the campus. One had been apprehended and but the two others were looking for targets. Shannon had no way of knowing whether or not her classroom would be the next target. That’s how it happens, isn’t it? The school shooters go from classroom to classroom. And that’s where she sat.
I was walking back from a lunch meeting with two fellow Good Men Project-er’s, Mark Sherman and Marie Roker-Jones. It was cold and blustery in New York City, my leg was hurting, and so I stopped in a building archway to rest for a minute and get away from the wind. I checked my messages. I saw the message from Shannon that said “Shooting on campus”. I can picture the place I was standing and how the whole of New York City started to swirl around me. It was as if the very land beneath my feet became unstable.
Here was my thought process: “I have to get a hold of Shannon and make sure she is OK. But if I text her back while a gunman is in her classroom, and her phone beeps, it could startle the gunman into shooting at the noise. I had better not text her.”
This is not a made-for-TV movie I am watching. This is real decision making around an event that involves my daughter in what could be a life or death situation, and I am struggling with “what do I do as a parent?”
Yes, this is 21st century parenting. Welcome to it.
So I don’t call Shannon and I don’t text her. I call Joanna Schroeder, who was the first person I had called when the bomb went off at the Marathon. I had called Joanna minutes after the bombing so she could get the story out while I got my children to safety. My thought process on marathon day was “I have to send a warning. I have to tell people the news.” When I had called Joanna and said, “There were two bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line“—and then my phone got cut off— Joanna did what any good journalist would do—she looked to verify the information. She googled “Boston Marathon bombings” and couldn’t find any information on it. Then she realized—she couldn’t find the information because it was unfolding in real time. I had beat Google with the news. (Joanna writes about that same story here.)
And I called Joanna again right after Shannon texted me about the shooting, not because Joanna is my best friend nor the most important person at The Good Men Project (although she is an extraordinarily important and valuable part of GMP, and I do consider her a friend).
I called Joanna because I knew she would understand how to get me the information I needed in the middle of a crisis.
And that is what she did. She stayed on the phone with me while she searched for information on the shooting, and found that once again the event was unfolding in real time. But a minute or so later, she found confirmation that it had been a single shooter and the shooter had been apprehended. I took a deep breath and then texted Shannon back and asked if she was OK. When she called and I tried to find out about what it was like those hours in the classroom, she burst into tears. But it was OK. We talked it through, she went to support services, and she got help and solace from her friends and the people who had been through it with her.
Here is my learning in all of this:
1) Catastrophes will almost certainly happen in your lifetime that will directly affect your life and/or someone you love. It’s a sad fact of life in the 21st century, but disasters that are almost unthinkable are no longer things that happen to “other people”. There are several reasons for this, but I think it’s mostly because we are spreading out geographically while staying connected virtually. When something really bad happens in the US, it seems to be ever more certain that someone I know was there. I have friends or family that were directly affected by—killed, injured, displaced or having to help survivors pick up the pieces— 9-11, Hurricane Sandy, tornadoes in Oklahoma, the Newtown Shooting. Oh, and the Boston Marathon bombing. We are all affected by these events.
2) Preparedness doesn’t mean extreme survivalist tactics. It means learning things—often a little at a time—that can save your life in a crisis. Part of the reason I stay healthy and exercise every day is so I can survive a physical crisis. Since the Boston Marathon bombing, I have learned how to tie a tourniquet, brushed up on my CPR skills, and talked to first responders about how they deal with emergency situations. I look for fire exits in a building. I keep my phone charged and with me. I researched and understood symptoms and actions to take for PTSD. I don’t let the threat of potential catastrophe rule my life or cause undue anxiety, but I do live a life which is increasingly able to deal with a disaster when it does occur. As I said after the Boston Marathon, “I now have bombing experience. I will better know what to do next time.”
3) Have a collection of people you connect with in a crisis. This is has been my favorite, most useful insight. I may not know what to do, but if I connect with people early enough, often enough, I can get the help I need. Time after time I have learned that reaching out to others has helped me figure things out—whether it is while the crisis is unfolding or in the days, weeks or months afterwards. My support network of people I can connect with is one of the most valuable things I own.
At his trial, the shooter at Purdue was sentenced to 65 years in jail. The judge reportedly said that Cody Cousins had become frustrated by his lack of success and inability to achieve independence, which led to envy. The judge called the tragic incident a story of Cain and Abel. I see this as a pattern that emerges in mass and school shooters—there is a crisis of identity in the shooter’s perception of themselves as a man. If a man can only be defined by success and he can’t be successful, what happens? Very very few men become violent, but I see the cracks in identity become the basis of “he just snapped.”
The hope with The Good Men Project, of course, is that a conversation about manhood in the 21st century can create change for the better.
Parenting, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, community, villages—we’re all in this together. We know the roles of men and women are changing—and with that everything we know about being a parent in the 21st century. But I have no doubt we’ll figure this out together.
As a parent—what do you think you would have done if you got that text?
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