I am thinking about this little boy named Daniel who came to my school a couple of months into the year. Some thoughtful adult had taught him to begin each request with ‘excuse me’ followed by the ask. How he spoke got him, most often, just what he wanted – attention, a second muffin, a shoe tied.
Daniel liked to run away too. For reasons not shared with me, he didn’t live with his mom for the first three years of his life. Then, child protective folks put mother and son back together. Daniel then started learning to run. When I got a call this morning that he had run from the classroom, I knew I needed to pick up speed if I were to catch him. He could be anywhere.
That’s when I stepped onto the yard and saw our gate, unlocked, wide open, swinging in a breeze coming over the bay.
You can buy locks, or parts for them everywhere. They sell keyed locks, digital locks, and huge locks that weigh ten pounds. An unlocked lock, however, is equal to an open door. And the chemicals released in one’s body upon even the thought of a child that might have slipped away are among the more intense. Adrenaline, nausea, panic.
My own elementary school had no locks. Could that be true? An entire side of our playground had no fence. How could that be? What were we thinking back then? Now, I have a big sign on the door to the school announcing lock times and have cameras at each entrance to the school – the premise: locked equals safe.
The premise that we might lock out what scares us continues to increase. In the past few months, I have reviewed dozens of renovation plans that sketch different ways to enter and exit the school. All proposals channel people through monitored gates through a security check point. All of them offer a high fence with a lock-able gate and a suggested locking protocol to enhance safety. My school will become, once it is renovated, a modern-day castle – ten foot fences made of black mesh and sturdy gates that slide closed with a muted click. Only the very few will have keys.
A gate that closes can also be left open. When I saw the open gate this morning, how powerless I felt! A kid who wants to run will find a way. No, Daniel did not get out. He hadn’t even tried. Instead he was with my school’s social worker for some in-the-moment intervention. Adults had not communicated, hence the sounding of the alarm and the ensuing search. For all my body knew, the boy had left. It hit me the same.
Safety is about assigning level-headed openness to faith – and not retreating under the weight of what might happen. Vision, must then be about demanding to see and refusing to blink. Every time, I have found fleeing children. So these two perspectives permit me to begin anew after each close call – to imagine that I walk beneath a smiling sun. Locks work like tranquilizers, but they do not buy permanence. May the exception steer from becoming the rule. Through it all, boys like Daniel will find their way – because or in spite of our best efforts.