At 11:03 am, my daughter’s teacher sends an email with the subject line: “Help!”
At 10:13 am, police in Nashville had received the first phone call about a shooting at an elementary school. By 10:27 am, three adults and three children were dead. Three children. By 10:45 am, the news alerts were popping up on my laptop while I worked: Another shooting. Elementary school. Three children dead.
I told myself not to look, not to read, not to find out, again, how a child was shot with a bullet in school. I told myself not to scroll through the photos, not to stare at the mothers and think about how lucky I was that it was not our school this time. I told myself not to picture the doors, the way they locked, the way you had to call reception and show ID to enter the building. I told myself not to picture the guns. The guns. The guns. The guns.
At 11:03, the teacher’s email came through: “Help!”
She hadn’t seen the headlines, I was sure, because the teachers always put their phones away while they worked with the students. They were oblivious to what was happening outside the classroom, focused instead on helping this child place her cutout of South America on the map she was making, and reminding that child to wash his hands after using the restroom. And at 11:03 am, the teacher was dealing with a dramatic battle that was impacting the entire class, because a beaded unicorn bracelet had been found on the floor, and my daughter and one of her classmates were each insisting it belonged to them. But before I clicked to open the email, for that split second, before I thought about how the teacher probably hadn’t seen the headlines and before I knew that the email wasn’t about a shooting at my kids’ school, I thought how did they get through the door and NO and please, not her.
But then the email contained a picture, not of my dead child, but of the beaded bracelet with the unicorn charm and a desperate plea to two mothers to claim the bracelet for a daughter. It was my daughter’s, I knew, because she had tried to put it on that morning and I had told her no, that she couldn’t wear it to school, that she’d lose it, that she should put it somewhere safe. We had fought about it, both raising our voices, both gritting our teeth. I imagined the ways I would have tortured myself if that had been our last interaction as mother and child.
She must have slipped the bracelet into a pocket when I wasn’t looking.
The other mother and I responded, set the record straight, solved the mystery in the classroom. I apologized for letting it slip by me; the other mother apologized that her daughter thought it was hers when it wasn’t. I imagined the teacher putting the trinket into my daughter’s bag, the way the beads would fall down among the water bottle and the pom-pom hat I’d stuffed in there in case it was cold and the extra snack in case lunch wasn’t enough, all the ways we try to keep them safe.
It was irrational, I suppose, to think that the teacher would have emailed me if my child had been shot instead of calling me. I want to ask the school what their communication protocol is, if (when?) there’s a shooting, but I don’t want to ask because I also don’t want to know. I can’t know.
I thought to myself, I should write her back, suggest that she think about her subject line before she sends off an email like that in the future, tell her that she shouldn’t panic the mothers.
But a teacher should be able to send a frantic “Help!” email without a parent assuming that her child was dead. A teacher should be able to have a squall over a unicorn bracelet be the most difficult part of her day. A teacher should be able to cry: help.