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Back-to-school checklists look different in the era of mass shootings

How do you prepare your children for a world where schools themselves can turn deadly?

Like so many parents after Labor Day, I just sent my child off to join the ranks of the nearly 73 million children who march off to public school each year in America.

Getting this child ready at this moment in time involves preparation parents past could never have fathomed.

Kindergarten officially makes my 5-year-old son a Big Boy ready to join the world. Prepping his book bag, school supplies and first day of school outfit is a ritual connecting me to generations of parents past. I am now one of those people who exclaim, “They grow so fast!” I get it now.

But getting this child ready at this moment in time involves preparation parents past could never have fathomed. I’m sending my child off into a society where mass shootings are commonplace, where children of his complexion get arrested for being kids, and where his name gets equated with terrorism more than peace. How do you prepare a 5-year-old for all that?

You start by searching online for bulletproof backpacks. You are inspired by a mom you saw on TikTok drilling her son on how to respond to an active shooter, which includes hiding in a corner with the backpack strapped to his front. That child is also prepared to disobey the teacher if he is told to run and leave the backpack behind. That child practices saying, “No, I need my backpack to stop bullets!”

Image: Screenshot showing Google search results for "bulletproof backpack".
Back to school traditions now include a search for the perfect bulletproof backpack.Courtesy Nayyera Haq

With 119 school shooting incidents in 2022, several manufacturers are currently capitalizing on parents' fears. A quick Google search will send you to multiple tactical options, which look heavy and won’t do for Big Boy’s small shoulders. Google will helpfully share that other parents are searching with more thoughtful questions like “Are bulletproof backpacks legal? Are bulletproof backpacks heavy? What is level 3 body armor?” Your brain fritzes at that last one. Then your eye stumbles on the Perfect Bulletproof Backpack. The whole thing is a Spider-Man mask in bag form and your child will love it for the character, you’ll love it for the security, and you’ll delay explaining the safety features and keep your baby innocent to the horrors of the world for maybe another week. Done deal.

Then you find out that the 111A security these backpacks provide does zilch to protect your child from being a casualty in any of the horrific school shootings you remember. In Uvalde, El Paso, and in Dayton, the shooters used assault-style weapons with armor-piercing bullets that create explosions in the body. “Little bodies turned to jelly” is the phrase you recall from some newscast and you realize there is Nothing You Can Do to truly protect your child in a moment of rampant gun violence.

You’ve lost track of where we are in the gun control debate. You know the majority of Americans support background checks and can’t believe anyone really thinks assault weapons are needed for freedom, despite the need to get rid of feral hogs.

But the best Congress can do after decades of NRA and obsessive gun culture influence is background checks from ages 18-21 and encouraging, not mandating, states to limit gun purchases in cases of domestic violence. No wonder 45,000 Americans were killed by a gun in a year — with only 5% of the world’s population, we have nearly half of the world’s civilian guns. We are armed! And ready! But for what? Your husband considers buying a gun, “while we’re still allowed” but you worry about what it means for a Black man to have a gun, even when Black Lives Matter. This is your reality.

You wonder what Big Boy’s experience will be in his first week and you hope this rambunctious child will be able to listen to the rules. A sporty kid used to running around outside, you can see him innocently wandering off campus. Will the cops see this Black child, scream at him for being a truant, and handcuff him in the back of their car? This is not your anxiety in overdrive. You only conceived of this possibility because it actually happened to a kindergartner in your county. Even while watching the video, you can’t fathom that a grown adult would scream in a child’s face for hours. But you know there are broken people out there and some of them end up in uniform, so it falls on you to protect your child.

Image: A child wearing a backpack is hugged by a younger child.
The author's children on her son's first day of kindergarten.Courtesy Nayyera Haq

He is a sweet boy, a tall boy, a Black boy, and you don’t need all the research to tell you people will adultify him, expecting more from little kids simply because of skin color. This is your reality.

You gave him a strong name, one that means Beloved King in Swahili and Scholar in Arabic, in hopes he would draw on the traits of leadership and learning as he grows. Combined with his father’s last name, your son bears a name indicating you are a Muslim family. Your son has shared lovely ideas of his concept of nature and faith — “God is everywhere, but when you try to look quickly, you still can’t catch God. Because God is camouflaged.” As his parents, you both go, “Oh. That’s deep.”

In our reality of schools turning deadly, you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to fight the many other battles being fought about education.

You don’t say anything to Big Boy about his parents growing up with their faith tied to the worst terrorist attack in America’s history. You came of age with one congressman saying “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” and another one advocating for “taking out” Muslim holy sites. Your son was born on election night, when a president promised and passed a Muslim ban. You are not even remotely surprised the majority of Muslim families report their kids face harassment and bullying in schools. You just hope this year, in kindergarten at least, the teachers opt against speaking about 9/11 which is so close to the start of the school year and a new life journey. This is your reality.

Can’t it all just wait till he’s older? Give me just one more year.

In our reality of schools turning deadly, you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to fight the many other battles being fought about education; you could care less about limiting the school library, the sexual preferences of his teacher, or anyone’s gender identity. Your priority is simply having your child return home.

Here’s where you land. You don’t prepare your child because that would break your and his heart. You decide instead to tackle the system and change the world on his behalf. Because in the weird parent logic brain, fighting massive institutions is actually easier than shredding your kid’s simple nature on his first day of school.

I don’t feel sorry for myself. Nor am I a person of woe. My son is a living blessing, a walking medical miracle, an emotional conundrum. I wouldn’t change him in any way. But changing our systems to welcome and embrace people like him, that is a mission worth a lifetime of dedication. You don’t know how — yet. But you are now one of those people who exclaims, “Do it for the children!” Get it now?