Yesterday I was able to chaperone a group of kids, including my sister and one of her best friends, on a trip to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival. Now, if you know anything about me, you probably knew or could have guessed that I am a huge renfaire geek - so naturally sis and I were dressed up in garb and ready to roll.
This baffled a lot of children - I can't tell you how many people asked me for directions at the faire, or whether I worked there. The idea that a grownup could dress up for fun was utterly mystifying to a lot of these kids. Most of them had never been to a renaissance festival before, and I think they couldn't imagine a world in which adults wanted to pretend for a day. It made me think about expectations - my experience growing up led me to believe that dressing up was not only enjoyable but sometimes mandatory (see my Anglican priests in their gold-tinged vestments). These kids didn't have the same experiences, so their expectation of what adults do was entirely different from mine.
But these kids had expectations of their own.
When I was little, going to the faire, I heard a lot of things, from recorders to hammered dulcimers to cannon blast and gunshots. I knew the music and I knew what blank ammunition sounded like. It scared me at first, sure, to see a man pull out a pistol and shoot somebody (who of course, didn't bleed) but soon enough I figured out that it was pretend, just like their costumes and renfaire personas.
The kids I watched over yesterday initially found that music boring, but when they heard the gunshots, the cannons, they immediately stopped talking. Some of them ducked. Some of them hit the ground as if their lives depended on it.
I am not exaggerating. These reactions were those kids' expectations - this was what you were supposed to do.
As for me, I felt a shiver of foreboding when I saw that these children - elementary and middle schoolers - already knew how to react to the sound of a gunshot. Not just foreboding - maybe even shame. Because a world in which children have any understanding of this kind of violence means that we have failed them, that we have created a space of constant danger and fear. A space they live in every day.
How many times do we have to explain to our children what's happening on the news? How many duck and cover drills, how many shelter in place routines do they have to endure before it becomes normal or even expected? I remember my first shelter in place experience - and it wasn't when I was little, but when I was teaching. A classroom full of first graders huddled away from the doors and windows, utterly silent, and none of them were moved by it but I most certainly was. They grew up with it, were growing up in a world of school shootings, domestic violence, domestic terrorism.
Was I naive, as a little girl, to not think that this stuff could happen to me - or was I just incredibly lucky?
Some people might look at the kids I was chaperoning and assume - because of their economic backgrounds, their race, whatever - that they were naturally exposed to more violence. Statistics of urban gun crimes are thrown out there by common citizens and politicians as an explanation of why gun control doesn't work, as if there's a class of people (read: usually poor, usually minority) who just have to accept, just have to take the blame for pathetic gun laws and routine apathy. As if being Black, or being poor, or being generally disenfranchised and disrespected meant that gun violence was normal.
As if it were expected.
But I'll tell you now, those kids were more influenced by school shootings than by "urban gun violence." It wasn't just some subset of kids who got quiet and scared - it was all of them. All of them were living in a world of violent expectations.
And that's what scares me.
Those people who allow and even, by their inaction, endorse gun violence in the lives of little children can't see what happens to those kids. Can't see that they are good kids - that my sister's best friend loved the storyline at the faire and couldn't wait to go home so that she could play pretend and shout, "God save the Queen!" with her dolls the way she had been coached by actresses in pretty dresses. They can't see a group of kids from every background run up onstage to dance to the recorder and guitar - even though they had never heard that kind of music before, even though people were watching. They won't allow themselves to notice that these little people who spend their dollars on fake, furry mustaches and run around still wanting to play dress up are the same little people who live in a world of Columbine and Sandy Hook and who know how to duck when they hear gunshots.
Expectations. How did I end up with garb, and they ended up with violence?
I love being a big sister - wouldn't trade it for the world. I just wish that I could turn back the clock for this generation of children and bring them into a world without school shootings, mall shootings, movie theatre shootings. And I wish, so much, that our lawmakers could help to make that happen.
We had a great day at the faire, and I can't help but think that maybe things would be better if I could have kept all those kids there, where bullets were blanks and cannons shot fireworks.