On Campus
Feb 19, 2013, 06:58AM

Taking the Prayer Walk at My Son's School

The world is a vampire.

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En masse, first graders are something else; they do not come with off switches or volume knobs or idea filters. Let's say that there are 15 of them, in a room, plus a teacher and a teacher's aide, plus you, a one-day volunteer. Omniscience will be beyond your modest layperson's abilities. The waves of laughter, chatter, tattling, and undiluted personality force that pour from 15 six- and seven-year-olds are immense, and you will be incapable of absorbing or guiding or quelling them as a whole for longer than five seconds or so. If you try, you're a fool. The secret, of course, is to put out fires as they erupt or as they're approaching critical mass, to counsel individually as you're able, to comfort the reliably inconsolable, to excuse yourself now and again for a sanity check, to assist around the school, or to go for a prayer walk.

I know, because I've twice volunteered to be a Watch D.O.G. at my son's K-12 school, which means taking a day off work to bro down with your kid's classmates. There are not many opportunities in life to simultaneously feel like a hero, an anthropologist, and a life coach; this is one of them. Because you are tall, a parent, and an adult, it's generally understood that you are awesome. Your opinion on schoolwork quality will be solicited. You will be urged to ascend the jungle gym and descend the slide to the ear-splitting shrieks of little girls. You will be the duke of high-fives. You will encourage, guide, order, gently cajole: keeping law and order in the boys' restroom, supplying encouragement to the distraught. You will be on the receiving end of countless inane, adorable monologues about nothing, and you will like it.

And there will be prayer walks. What is a prayer walk? It's pretty simple: you walk the school's parameter, and you say prayers. The prayer walk is a prescribed activity on each Watch D.O.G.'s schedule, alongside assisting teachers with projects and gathering recycling. But the prayer walk cuts to the subtext of the entire Watch D.O.G. program: there are cardio and spiritual components to this exercise, but the illusion of security completes the holy trinity.

This last time, I allowed myself two or three prayer walks. As I completed the last one—fumbling the Lord's Prayer, and trying not to dwell on the work I wasn't doing that day—I felt a chill run through my blood and gooseflesh stifle my skin, and for a moment I stood stock still on the sidewalk that runs along the main street where my son's school is located. A large public high school is on the opposite side of the street; go south and you'll encounter bucolic suburban sprawl, head north and there's shopping center bordering a larger thoroughfare. To the east lay raw, undeveloped forests and fields. The doors are not locked; there are no security guards.

And that's what hit me like a truck, standing there: the realization of just how vulnerable they all were, how exposed and without defense or recourse, every single day. The ladies in the administrative annexes, the undergrad-bound kids studying computer science in the trailers, the fifth graders trundling over to the gym for Physical Education, the yammering multitudes sipping Capri Suns in the lunchroom, or squirming en route to bathrooms that are never empty enough, the kindly teachers masking exhaustion with warm smiles. Madness cannot be preempted.

Anything could happen here, at anytime, to anyone, for no discernable reason. Last year, when the boy was in kindergarten, the school went into lockdown because some idiot robbed a bank and fled on foot, and the police didn't know where he was. The lockdown lasted an hour, and while it was happening I didn't much sweat it because my wife was there with him. If something similar went down today, post-Sandy Hook, I don't know how I'd react or cope, but the horrible possibilities felt more real than they ever had before. Had my own parents feared for me as a child, in the similarly defenseless environs of the Waldorf School, of St. Charles Borremo, of Holy Family and Calvert Hall and Washington College? Had they prayed, often and with passion, while keeping their worries to themselves? Or had that era just been less insane and random in various ways?

I said one more prayer, walked back into the building, rejoined my son's class. It was time for recess, and then we'd get his stuff together, go home, and I'd try my damnedest not to think about how scared I was for him, and for all of us.


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