On the afternoon of February 14, my school was buzzing with more than the usual amount of middle school energy. Teachers had exchanged the school colors we usually wear on Wednesday for red attire in celebration of Valentine’s Day. Student council members were dressed up to deliver singing valentines to their classmates. The hallway was littered with scraps of foil from Hershey’s kisses, and girls carried long-stemmed carnations they had received that morning. Some students carried homemade gifts for friends and teachers, and I had a few of these sweet gifts with me as I walked into my final class of the day.
I had no idea that at that very moment students and teachers in Parkland, Florida, were hiding in classrooms and closets, listening to the sound of gunfire, fearing for their lives, and seeing horrors I can only imagine.
After I picked up my son, Reed, from high school and drove home, I turned on the television to see a breaking news report about the shooting. Teenagers who resembled my son and my students were streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with their arms raised above their heads. The news bulletin running across the bottom of the screen communicated details of the unfolding tragedy. As I watched, I thought of the carefree joy I’d just witnessed in my own school and the unfathomable terror in this one, and my heart broke in the contradiction.
Eighteenth century poet William Blake wrote a collection of poetry entitled Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which could be a poetic description for middle and high school. Blake included the subtitle, “the two contrary states of the human soul,” and I see this emerging in my students. They still carry their innocent child with them—wide-eyed, carefree, curious, and playful—yet “experience” begins to affect them. For many students, they experience their first great losses during these years: friends move to different schools; older siblings move away to college; grandparents (and other family members) die; and too frequently, parents separate and divorce. Even something as simple as a lock-down drill is an “experience” that introduces the suspicion that the world isn’t as safe as they imagined.
Yet, an “experience” like a school shooting? It is beyond comprehension.
On difficult days Frederick Buechner’s words have often echoed in my mind like a rallying cry: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” Thursday morning was one of them. I kissed Reed goodbye at the front door and told him I loved him. Most days it is an act of affection; on this morning it felt like an act of bravery. As I readied myself for school, I thought of my full-time coworkers who were already there, preparing their classrooms and greeting students. I imagined the anxiety many of them felt—both the teachers and students. I was grateful for some margin in my morning before heading to school. When I arrived, I recognized that I was walking toward the door with a heaviness I usually don’t carry. It was more than my emotions; it was the weight of the contradictions that would meet me inside.
Grief and joy; anger and good cheer; fear and courage; anxiety and peace, innocence and experience—this is life, all of it.
Recently I heard singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson explain the concept of eucatastrophe. It’s a word coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, which knits together the Greek terms for “good” and “destruction.” Yet another contradiction. Eucatastrophe means “a sudden happy turn in a story; a miraculous grace.” When the battle seems lost, Aslan appears on the horizon. When the terrible night seems unending, the sun appears in the east. And when death seems to have the final word, the stone is rolled away and the tomb stands empty.
How can a catastrophe hold grace? It’s a divine mystery.
In the middle of the mystery and the aftermath of the unspeakable, we show up. We show up for our children, our students, and each other as an act of courage, defiance, and declaration. We declare that this is not a catastrophe; it’s a eucatastrophe. We may not see it, and we certainly don’t understand it; yet, in that important distinction, hope lives.
On the blacktop I paused and prepared myself to enter the school and step into the contradictions. I swiped my key card, pushed open the door, and walked into the buzzing hallway. Amid the noise, a voice whispered, “Here is the world…don’t be afraid.”
Susan Tucker spends her days mothering her two teenage sons, teaching middle school English, and savoring rare moments of quiet and solitude. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her sons and her husband of 23 years. Susan finds life in a beautiful story, an authentic conversation, worship music, and ultimately, in Jesus, the giver of all good gifts.