This article was originally published in the March 2018 Princeton Echo.
It’s Tuesday morning, a quarter to ten. My daughter is off to school, the crumbs from breakfast are cleaned up, and I nestle by the fireplace with a cup of coffee. The cat jumps into my lap and starts purring.
Pling! A message pops up on my phone from the superintendent of schools:
“Dear parents, This morning around 7:20 am, a student reported to a teacher that an unidentified male in his 20s entered Princeton High School. Upon investigation, the school went into shelter in place and police were called. Police are currently searching the school looking for the individual. We don’t believe there is a threat to students at this time, however our students’ safety is always our first priority. The school will continue to shelter in place until police have given the all-clear.”
There goes my domestic tranquility. Likewise for my daughter, who just an hour ago was worried only that I would overcook her soft-boiled egg. Now she is hunkered down and staring at the locked doors of her classroom as an unknown man prowls the hallways. My practical Dutch intuition, mixed with a good dose of wishful thinking, tells me that it will probably amount to nothing. After all, our sons, both former students at Princeton High, go back sometimes to see friends and teachers. But five years of being confronted with school shootings — about 250 times in the U.S. since the drama of Sandy Hook and already 50 since last summer — makes me break out in a cold sweat.
I call my friend, the nervous mother of my daughter’s classmate, who has already rushed to the school. “I’m here at the front door,” she says. “It looks like a war zone. Police everywhere. God knows what is happening in there now. I do not believe that it helps to lock the doors. Anyone can kick them open. “
“Come over to my house,” I say. “I just made coffee.”
“No,” she says. “I want to be there when … if …” She interrupts herself. “How come you are always so calm?”
I am honestly relieved that she is not coming. The images of school shootings are engraved in the mind of every American parent, but I do not want to think about such horror scenarios. I try to stay calm, but I cannot help listening if I hear ambulances in the distance or see helicopters flying overhead.
A little past 10 a.m. Pling! Another message from the superintendent. The unknown man in his early 20s turns out to be a former student at the school who just wanted to visit his teachers and friends. Great relief everywhere. The police issue an all-clear alert. The doors are unlocked. The teachers pick up their books. Please turn to chapter three …
In the meantime, my coffee got cold. A trickle of blood runs down my fingernail. I had chewed off some skin without noticing it. “I’ve called the doctor for a prescription for Valium,” my friend e-mails. Every time there is an incident like this her stomach is tied in knots. Then she gets horrible nightmares. I tell her not to worry so much.
A few days later. Pling! News alert. A shooting in Florida, the umpteenth in a row. A young man has entered the school and has killed 17 children and adults. He turns out to be a former student.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.