On our way to our classroom today, a little girl looked me in the eye and said “There was a shooting.”
Another child turned around, panic in her eyes. “There was a shooting? Where??”
Before I could answer, the first little girl did it for me. “In Squirrel Hill. That’s why I didn’t have a lunch today. My daddy is there and he couldn’t leave. So I just had snacks instead.”
I fielded a few more questions and tried my best to hold the space. Yes, someone who was angry and full of hate used a gun to hurt people. I didn’t mention that it happened in a house of worship because we were in a church. I didn’t mention the targeting of a Jewish congregation because we are a multi-faith program. I didn’t mention that people were murdered. I didn’t even mention the exact location, because Pittsburgh is a surprisingly small town for a big-ish city, and everyone has some sort of connection to every place, including Squirrel Hill.
I spent an extra long time on our physical warm ups today. I put on soothing music and helped the children feel grounded and safe in their own bodies. I was extra careful to make sure we all had space and that no one was bumping into one another. For a singing class, we did an awful lot of talking today. We talked about asking before touching. We talked about respect. We talked about peace. We talked about collaboration. We talked about how much more complex our partner clapping patterns were when we took the time to listen to one another and collaborate. We sang. We moved. We played. We danced.
It was hot, as the room always is. We knew that since the church was on lockdown, we dare not open the windows.
Then, on the bathroom break, that first little girl melted. I checked in with her to make sure she was doing OK since she didn’t get a whole lunch. She said she had a headache. She said her stomach was like acid. She asked for more food and water and to sit in the hall, away from the chaos. She asked for me to sit with her.
We sat and I held her water as she ate her granola bar and fishies. I made her giggle when I told her to pull down the wrapper so she didn’t accidentally eat it like a goat. I said that would not make her tummy feel any better. I asked if she wanted to talk about anything.
She told me her great-grandfather died, and that she missed him. He used to give her caramels. I told her about my great-grandmother, who we used to call Bubble Gum Nanny because she gave us gum whenever we came to visit. She said she missed her great grandpa. I said I still miss my great grandma. We always miss and love the people we care about when they leave us.
She did not mention the shooting.
Back in the classroom, acting out the folktale Abiyoyo, the children rehearsed. They sang. They moved. They played. They danced. They threw themselves into the moment in a way that only children can. We adults tried to hold the space, attention divided. We tried to be a little extra patient and a little extra loving.
Leaving the room, she slipped her hand in mine. “Can I walk with you, Ms. Annette?” she asked. “Of course,” I said, giving her hand a squeeze. “Absolutely.”
Nothing about this day is about me. It’s about my Jewish friends and the ugliness that knocked down their Temple door. It’s about the children who are confused and angry and feel unsafe. “It isn’t fair,” one said. “We shouldn’t have to live like this.”
I don’t know the script for a day like today. There is no choreography. Improvising the answers for children who deserve so much better seems sloppy. There are not enough trainings and active shooter drills in the world to make you feel sufficiently rehearsed for a day like today.
And so, for the children, we hold ourselves together. We sing. We move. We play. We dance.