Monday, February 18, 2008
As parents we try hard to protect our children. Every new foray into independence by our sons and daughters matches equally with parental reluctance to let those tiny hands go. Despite their rush for adulthood, we recognize that our children still have that naivety and innocence we actually long to protect. We are well-aware that all too soon the hard facts of life will bring cynicism, sadness and weariness; so, we seek to extend childhood as long as possible even as we push the fledglings from the nest.
Therefore the tragedy at Northern Illinois University underscores how quickly our children can be thrust into the cruelty of the world even before they are completely armored for such an assault. I was going to write a blog about mini-soccer (also known as micro-soccer, lil kicks, etc.) for those players whose socks reach their hips and whose feet barely know how to stabilize their walk. Then NIU's community faced a few moments of horror that will stain their memories, their lives, their growth and their security forever.Those students are only a decade removed from the players they were in those first soccer games where they ran the wrong way or begged to be the goalkeeper or giggled so hard when they and their teammates fell into a pig pile. A decade will never be enough time to develop the perspective capable of absorbing and understanding what happened in their village. It's far too soon to be introduced so abruptly to the brutality of the world. It's far too soon to have to comfort others when you are unsure of what it all means. It's far too soon to be asked to give up your innocence.
I have a strong connection to NIU, so this incident hit me particularly hard. When I worked for US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, I had the privilege of visiting the campus two or three times a year for various ODP events. Region II held its Girls Regional Camp at NIU. Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana ODP teams would scrimmage on the athletic fields, and Illinois held its summer pre-regional camp there. I have gotten to know NIU soccer coaches and players through these contacts. My son Robbie has been in communication with the coaching staff about their soccer program and sat in Cole Hall for an orientation. A friend of my boys attends NIU and sat huddled for an hour in the back of a classroom just steps from the tragedy not knowing what was going on outside. So I know the people involved in the community of 25,000. I know that this event touched everyone's life. The school is a beautiful campus nestled on the north edge of DeKalb in the middle of farming land. The pace is gentle, quiet and kind. The school is the hub of activity in DeKalb. Because I have a son in college right now, I feel a kinship with all the mothers who anxiously awaited word of their children on Valentine's Day.
My hulking 6'2" son still possesses an innocence which is belied by his confident swagger and his absolute conviction that he knows more than his parents. He still calls me Mommy and will phone in distress over his account being overdrawn or the bookstore being out of an important textbook. He still believes I can perform miracles in those circumstances where he finds himself in trouble or in need. He will suddenly come over to me while I write at the computer to give me a hug, which I know is as much for his needs as for mine. I also know that he is little different from any of his friends of the same age, away from home for the first time in college. So I can't imagine how convoluted and rocky the students at NIU now find their lives. They have friends dead or injured. They have faced danger and mortality. They have seen horror that children in a country like ours should never have to see. There is no miracle a mother can perform to take away that cruel trial by fire from any child who has experienced such tragedy. So I can understand the hopelessness and agony NIU parents are feeling right now.
When I was at the Final Four in December I had the opportunity to speak to the wife of an assistant coach at Virginia Tech. We were both waiting in the hotel lobby for our respective teams to show up. I asked her how the student body and faculty were coping after their own tragedy. She spoke with pride of their resiliency, not that they rebounded to the same normalcy that existed before a gunman killed and wounded their friends, but of their ability to rise above the horror, to understand how it had blanched every memory of their college life, and to forge the determination to not let the events dictate defeatism in their lives. "They grew up too fast," she said. And now a new group of students has had to navigate this indefensible passage from innocence to stark reality.
Friday morning, following the tragedy, The Today Show was interviewing two young men who were in the lecture hall and witnessed the gunmen's destruction. One of the boys spoke about seeing all the chaos, of not knowing if he should run into a building or stay outdoors and of wondering if there were snipers on the top of Cole Hall just waiting to take out students as they fled. He could not have possibly had those thoughts two hours earlier as he walked to class. He didn't look up to see if rifles were aimed in his direction, or wonder if someone around him might need medical assistance, or stand conflicted as to the relative safety of his position. For the rest of his life those questions and others will run through his mind and will taint how he regards the independence of his own children.
While parents seek to protect within the parameters of encouraging their children to run ahead to the woods or leap over a fence or ride their wobbly bikes around the neighborhood, this student may oneday find himself clinging to his child because his knowledge of what the world can do is so much more horrific than mine. His final words to the reporter still haunt me, "I saw a girl on a stretcher with towels wrapped all over her head and tons of blood coming out. The EMT was saying, 'Stay with me,' and she was saying, 'I'm trying." These two children had their innocence and their trust stripped from them and as a parent I couldn't do anything to stop it.
So I will grieve for those who died, I will grieve for the students who were wounded, I will grieve for the families who will never be the same, I will grieve for the community whose eyes were seared by ugliness, I will grieve for the loss of innocence and I will grieve for us who frolicked in soccer matches, who cheered with pride, who pulled our children back from approaching traffic, who tested food to see if it was too hot for them to eat, who knew dangerous consequences but who assured our children it would all be OK, who set limits and then let our children test them, who breathed a sigh of relief every time they saw those bikes or cars round the corner for home, who didn't let their children see R-rated movies because they shouldn't be exposed to violence and sex, who loved well and safely and openly. I pray that all our children will be safe, even as I know that can't be possible. I pray for the people at NIU that they may find support, love, and healing.