On March 14 at 10:00 in the morning I was observing in a fourth grade classroom when Simon, a fourth grade student, approached me with a question.
“Miss Clifford, there are children walking out of their schools today to remember the people in Parkland, Florida that are hurting. Can I walk out?”
Personally I have been doing a lot of reflecting on this event, just like I did after the few school shootings prior to Stoneman Douglas High School. In my role of head of lower school, my primary concern is to have a culture of safety and inclusion for five to ten year olds to experience childhood – love their teachers, make friends, play freely outside, go on expeditions, learn, fail, and grow. I want children to be little. To be protected from the bad in the world – hate, discrimination, violence, and judgement.
It is hard to figure out how to have developmentally appropriate conversations about the real-world events on the news. It is hard to expose such innocent and happy minds to tragedy. Unlike our Middle and Upper School, as a Lower School we did not initiate a conversation about the Parkland shooting. Rather, we responded by increasing our awareness of what the children were saying, followed their lead, heard their fears, and encouraged hope for them.
I asked Simon if he knew why people were walking, and I was surprised at the mature level of his understanding. Another student in the class, Reilly, overhead us talking and chimed in, “I’d like to walk out too.”
I agreed to take the boys out at 10:30. It was a cold morning, but they did not want to go back in for their jackets. I told them about our Upper and Middle School students’ plan to walk out for a moment of silence on the 17-yard line of the football field. I would have loved for these two fourth grade boys to walk over and see how many of our students on the other campus were taking a stand. Since that was already over, however, I asked them what they wanted to do for our 17 minutes, and Simon simply responded, “Pray.”
In the sunshine on the green courtyard, the three of us knelt down to pray. Simon went first. Of course I assumed he would pray for the victims, their parents and their friends. But Simon did not start there. He prayed for the shooter and his parents. He prayed the shooter would find God, heal, and be okay. He prayed for the shooter’s parents to find peace, support, and forgiveness. I felt the tears well up in my eyes as I realized the empathetic heart of this ten-year-old boy. While I wanted to protect him from even knowing about an act of violence like this, he wanted to face it, pray for it, and talk about how to help. Simon prayed and prayed – for as many people he could think of that were involved – teachers, students, families, friends, doctors, and rescue workers.
Reilly prayed next. Riley prayed for the guard that did not respond to the call. He prayed that he would forgive himself and that people would understand that he did the best he could in that hard moment. Reilly prayed for schools around the world to be safe. He prayed that teachers and classmates would start standing up to bullies and pay attention to people in their classes who were hurting. He prayed for courage for people. Reilly got it! He understood the root cause. People are not bad. If a person does a bad thing it is because something is wrong, and it is everyone’s responsibility to take care of each other.
It was my turn to pray. I had to swallow hard because the knot in my throat was growing so large I was afraid I would not be able to speak. I was so thankful in that moment for the two boys who asked me to walk out with them and for a school that values prayer. I offered up my gratitude and thanksgiving for these two empathetic children and the opportunity to pray with them, be inspired by them, and learn from them. I echoed their concerns for all of the people, all of them, in Parkland. I prayed for wisdom, protection, and healing.
After I concluded my prayers and said amen, we talked more. The boys shared what they knew about the actual event and asked some hard questions to each other. They talked about schools, people, feelings, and how we all have to work together. They talked about gun laws.
We talked about how short life is and how every day is a gift. We reminded each other that we are all going to make mistakes, but when we do, we need to make it right as soon as we can. In my 14 years in education, I have had a lot of moving moments with my students, and this one will certainly stand out as one of the most powerful.