What We Can Learn From Uvalde's Children
On the roots of courage and the unique burdens of America's school kids.
Well hello! I’m glad you’re here. It’s been a rough week for the United States. Again. I did have an amusing piece planned about the many ironies of the Abba holographic tour, but was unable to shake the immutable fact that we can’t seem to keep school children safe. So I’m getting into the Texas story. But for a dose of inspiration, I also offer an exquisite excerpt from Maya Angelou. Yours, Susanna. (And, as always, if you love this newsletter, please forward it, or subscribe.)
Here we are again. Somehow, no one could keep 19 little children and their teachers safe when a teenager with an assault weapon attacked their school. The details, oh, the awful details of the endless hour those Texas 4th graders spent alone with a killer and their slain teachers.
It’s hardly bearable to read about, much less experience. How will the survivors survive the aftermath of this?
They were just kids on Tuesday. It was one of those giddy nearly-summer-vacation days in the town of Uvalde. The children got their end-of-year achievement awards and one class settled in for a movie.
But when the shooting started, these children knew what to do. After all, they’ve been training to be shot at for years now, just like most kids in America. They know to hide under desks and in closets, to stay out of the sightline of the door, to dim the lights, and to be still and quiet–like their lives depended on it.
These are the terrible responsibilities we’ve bestowed upon our children.
And yes, the sweet, brave young kids of Uvalde showed that they’d learned the lessons of this era. Even after watching their teachers die while protecting them, these ten and eleven-year-olds managed to muffle their sobs as bullets ricocheted around classrooms.
One little boy who had ducked under a table behind a tablecloth said, “I was hiding so hard,” as if hiding were something you could do hard, like crying. He kept his friend quiet so they wouldn’t be found as they waited and waited for help.
Two of those 4th graders had the astounding courage and presence of mind to get their teacher’s phone which had fallen next to her body. And my God, how did they dare move as the killer rampaged in the adjoining classroom? They had been taught to call the grown-ups for help, and they did.
One of those girls, 11-year-old Miah Cerrillo, was wounded by bullet fragments that peppered her head and body, but she managed to dial 911, whispering, “please send help because we're in trouble." That was just one of many calls she and her schoolmates would make from inside the building begging for the police to arrive. The pair could still hear the shooter nearby, so they played dead, a phrase that stings with terrible irony now. Miah also thought to smear herself with blood from the dying child next to her to survive.
She and most of the other survivors are home now, and many of them are still quiet, perhaps silent beyond tears. Miah spoke to a CNN reporter, a woman, and she was still in shock, bundled in a blanket despite the heat. According to the reporter, the only time Miah got emotional was when she learned that the police were just outside the classroom door while she was calling 911. She couldn't understand why the officers didn’t come in.
In a series of press conferences, law enforcement officials tried and failed to answer that question prompting heartbroken outrage. After all, Miah and the other kids heroically did their part; they did what they were taught to do when a killer showed up with a gun. Why couldn’t the police to the same? How could it take almost 90 minutes to end the ordeal?
A lieutenant with the Texas Department of Safety later admitted the officers were reluctant to engage the shooter because “they could’ve been shot” by this man wielding a uniquely lethal gun, the AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. (And it’s worth pointing out that more American children now die by gunfire than on-duty police officers, and gun violence now kills more kids than car accidents. )
This weekend, a few hundred miles away from Uvalde, Senator Ted Cruz spoke at a National Rifle Association event featuring “14-acres of guns and gear,” including many, many incarnations of the weapon used in the Uvalde attack and in the worst mass shootings of the last decade. Cruz sent his thoughts and prayers to the stricken families and proposed that we keep our children safe by arming teachers and “hardening schools.” What a horrific thought.
There has to be a better way. And besides, I fear we may already have hardened the children.
A Brave and Startling Truth
by Maya Angelou
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.