Charlie grew up today. Not all the way up, but he is not the same kid we dropped off at Woodriver Elementary this morning. He’s still a kid, but he knows a little bit more about the world than he did. He knows that safety is relative. He wouldn’t say it that way but he understands that being behind a locked door is usually pretty safe, but it doesn’t feel as safe when there might be a man with a bomb outside. Woodriver Elementary went on lockdown today after somebody called and threatened the school and its children with a bomb.
My wife didn’t have to go to work today. We dropped the boys off at school together. We watched Charlie walk into school and disappear into a group of kids. We grabbed a muffin and coffee and went home. We spent a leisurely day planning my graduation and watching old episodes of “House of Cards”. We ate lunch and browsed new refrigerators at Home Depot. We left and went to pick up Charlie. Our perfectly normal day changed when we saw the flashing lights.
We drove slowly down Palo Verde Drive. An Alaska State Trooper vehicle and a car from the University of Alaska Fairbanks police department blocked the back entrance. We were advised to move to the front parking lot because “The back lot has been secured”. The officers were polite, smiling and deadly serious. The referred to the actions as a “precaution”. We moved to the front lot where cars were allowed to enter one at a time after a quick check. Again, the officers were polite but serious. I have known the officer checking cars for more than 10 years. He smiled politely and asked us to move into the parking lot.
My wife and I were quietly panicking in the way only parents at a locked down school that was taking precautions but offering no other explanations can panic. I didn’t say anything to my wife, but I quietly noted with relief that there were no ambulances on scene.
We parked, left our car and walked to the front of the school. They were releasing children to their parents individually or in sibling groups. I have known most of the school staff for a few years and I could tell they were tense. This might have been a precaution, but that didn’t mean they weren’t serious. We gave a lady with a radio our name. She said Charlie’s name into it and we moved to the side.
While we were waiting we heard other parents talking about a bomb threat. Slowly the rumor became fact. About 10 agonizing minutes after we asked for him, Charlie walked slopwly out of the school. He was beautiful in his Baltimore Ravens stocking cap, but he was different. He wasn’t smiling.
“There was a bomb threat,” he said matter-of-factly. Or at least he tried to say that. We were hugging him pretty hard.
He got in the car and sat back quietly as we left school. If you know Charlie, you are rereading that last sentence because Charlie never sits quietly. I glanced at him over my shoulder. His happy, bright eyes were turned down. When he looked up very little of the normal sparkle was there.
“How was your day, Dad?” he asked. I blinked. Really?
“It was fine, son,” I replied. “Are you ok?”
He trembled and tears slowly filled his eyes. He blinked and slowly and quietly he explained how he was in his a resource class with four other boys when their teacher told them to sit on the floor. At some point they were told the basic facts. She turned off the lights and locked them in.
“We got scared and hid under the sink,” Charlie explained. “The room has a long counter and we could all fit in it.”
“Then what did you do?” his mom asked.
Charlie exhaled and closed, then opened his eyes. “We were kinda scared,” he said softly. He described how they huddled together and talked quietly in the dark.
He turned toward the window and seemed to be looking at something very far away. “Why would somebody want to scare us like that?”, he asked. “Or maybe hurt us?” I didn’t even try to answer. How do you explain this? Smarter people than me have been asking that question forever. If they couldn’t answer it, I didn’t stand a chance.
We picked up Eli and headed home. I thought about the afternoon’s events. As we stood outside and waited for the Charlie, several parents were complaining loudly about having to wait for their children. We all know the type: lots of complaints and criticisms and no suggestions. The process was “stupid” and “ridiculous” and the administrators were “clowns”. A lady on Facebook made it clear that she is the only person who could keep her kids safe and they wouldn’t be able to keep her out of the school to get her kids. I listened and read it all and recognized fear and helplessness. We all felt it.
In the end everything worked out. I don’t know if Woodriver’s plan worked the way it was supposed to, but it worked. Our kids are safe. If they want my input, I would be glad to give it. Right now all I want to say is thank you. Thank you to the Woodriver and school district staff and thank you to officers from the Fairbanks Police Department, The University of Alaska Fairbanks Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers. You might hear criticism, but you won’t hear it from my family.
In the grand scheme of time and events, this situation will barely show up outside of statistics. If will fade away because everything turned out ok. For a few minutes my wife felt that dry panicky taste in our mouths, but it went away when Charlie walked out. My heart goes out to parents in situations who never see their children walk out. I can’t even imagine . . .
Today we were reminded that no matter what you do and how hard you try to protect your children, at some point you let them go. We always took it for granted that we would see our boys after school in the same spot we dropped them off. Things worked out, but we won’t take it for granted again.
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you again soon on This Side of the Diaper.