Her straight-cut bangs skirted across her forehead, a blondish-brunette valance framing the bright sunshine that was my first grader’s face. Though she’s now a few years out of college, I can still clearly see her eager gap-toothed smile as she put on her Elmo backpack and slipped her small hand into mine as we walked to school. The anxiety, excitement, and promise of it all: a friendly new teacher, a backpack hook with her name on it, a reading corner with a faded orange beanbag chair, shiny waxed hallway floors, and the K-12 smell of sour milk and pencil shavings.

It all rings clear as a school bell in my now foggy mom-brain, the vivid nostalgia of my first child’s first school days. It was 1999, a school year bookended by the vivid horror of Columbine.

My second child was in 7th grade that April of 2007 when 33 students were massacred in Blacksburg. In 2012, she was in high school and my youngest in middle school when Sandy Hook shook the world. And now that youngest child is not so young anymore, a high school senior about to wrap up our family’s collective slog through the Charleston County School District, when Parkland punctuates her final semester. She writes an article for her school newspaper asking “Books or Bullets?” accompanied by a photo montage of her classmates holding signs that say “#MeNext?”

A school yearbook is not supposed to be a grief journal with tragic nods to senseless carnage. The superlative pages should not, ever, remotely, include even the hint of “Most Likely to Let Loose with an Assault Weapon” or “Most Likely to Be Target of Mass Shooting” categories — and yet, most likely, those are more relevant these days than “Most Likely to Negotiate World Peace.”

The numbers of people dead from school shootings and rampant gun violence are atrocious and devastating, and the bullets ricochet in other less deadly but still damaging ways. Despite South Carolina’s limp curriculum standards, our kids have enough critical reasoning savvy to get the message that their safety is less important than political posturing. They know their crowded classrooms lack adequate funding, that parents pony up to supply Kleenex and crayons, meanwhile our Lieutenant Governor and others justify the cost to turn schools into armories. Kindergartners get drilled on Code Orange and Code Red before they even learn ROY-G-BIV. Nineteen year-olds can’t legally do shots at a local bar but they can belly up to a gun shop and buy an AR-15. The lessons we’re teaching our kids seem clear: shit’s out of whack.

Students feel vulnerable, unsafe. Sure, I know that’s just how life is; this utter, terrifying vulnerability is every parent’s first lesson. Anyone who’s ever buckled a newborn in a car seat for that first ride home from the hospital understands the sense of fear and fragility that now glosses every moment. I also understand that it’s not my job as a parent and an adult to guarantee their safety in this brutal world, but it is my duty to provide an anchor of reassurance and to act responsibly. And by repeatedly electing officials who are bought by the NRA, we have failed our children.

The topsy-turvy logic that argues more guns in schools makes students safer is more than absurd. While we’re at it, let’s toughen up school anti-bullying policies by teaching kids and teachers to be even bigger bullies. Why not address sexual assault issues by handing out roofies and condoms?

I think of sweet Mrs. Powell, who welcomed my daughter with a big hug on that memorable first day of first grade, and I think of all the other heroic, dedicated teachers my girls have been fortunate enough to have over the years — Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Rushing, Mrs. Peeples, Mrs. Hopkins, Mrs. Walker, Mr. Horne, Mrs. Curry, and Mrs. and Mr. Many Many More — and I can’t fathom EVER wishing they had a gun stashed amidst the paper clips and dry erase markers cluttering their top drawer. I do wish they knew how much I am indebted to them; I do wish they had bigger paychecks and maybe a teacher’s aid. I wish I’d been a better volunteer and brought in the damn paper towels when I was supposed to, but I would never wish on them the responsibility, on top of all their other responsibilities, to be armed with anything other than love of children in order to teach.

High school graduation is just a few months away. God willing, my daughter will march across the auditorium stage to accept a well-earned diploma, but not before she and her classmates march out of school on March 14th, to call us out on the many ways we have failed them. My hope is that the #MeNext? hashtag will become their Me Next! declaration. Next to vote, as many of them will be eligible to do come mid-terms, for candidates who defy the NRA and defend the best interests of kids. Next to stand up and be a Dick(‘s Sporting Goods) and say “No More.” Next to be community leaders and maybe even teachers who can help heal our deep social divides. Next (well, maybe a few years down the road …) to be proud, hopeful parents walking their wide-eyed first graders into classrooms well stocked with books, not bullets.

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