Irish people living in US lockdowns and fearing for the lives of their children

Irish people living in the United States fear for the lives of their children, who are only armed with active shooter drills if a gunman targets their school. Some miss home, writes Aileen C. O’Reilly.

Irish people living in US lockdowns and fearing for the lives of their children

Irish people living in the United States fear for the lives of their children, who are only armed with active shooter drills if a gunman targets their school. Some miss home, writes Aileen C. O’Reilly.

It was Tom Wolfe who said of the US: “America is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time”.

These days America is waiting on a miracle as opposed to providing them and for the Irish who have moved there and are now raising their children stateside the reality of active shooter drills at school means the dream is well and truly over.

There is a poster in a Boston Kindergarten classroom which bears a nursery rhyme. Set to the same singsong rhythm as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star it reads: Lockdown, Lockdown, Lock the door, Shut the lights off, Say no more.

Go behind the desk and hide. Wait until it’s safe inside. Lockdown, lockdown It’s all done. Now it’s time to have some fun!

The rhyme, designed as a memory aid for very young children, is a shocking 21st-century reality check — just as “Ring a ring o’roses” was an apparently innocuous rhyme about the plague, this little ditty might just save your child’s life in the US.

Companies like ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) already go from school to school helping to implement security plans and evacuation procedures should a shooter open fire on campus. One Pennsylvania school is even reported to be arming its children with rocks.

Yvonne Watterson and her daughter Sophie.
Yvonne Watterson and her daughter Sophie.

Sinéad McLoughlin Desmond left Ireland and moved to America 20 years ago to marry a Cork man. They now live in Chicago, Illinois with their children, Órla, Cian and Rory.

“Growing up where we did in Rathcoole, Co Dublin, we would never have seen guns except for maybe when the securicor van went to the Bank of Ireland once a week,” she recalls.

Qwas a shock to the system immediately over here seeing every police officer having one on them in plain view. Be it at the shop or on the street. Even now I find myself staring directly at the gun. I was here a year when Columbine happened and it shook the country to its very core.

“But immediately it felt as though the defences went up and the NRA sprang into action — “now is not the time to talk about it, have respect for the deceased, thoughts and prayers blah blah blah...” she sighs in disdain.

“Since then we have had hundreds of similar incidents. Sandy Hook, Vegas, Parkland etc. It’s life as usual in the USA. My God, if kindergarteners getting slaughtered isn’t going to move the needle what is?

Sinead McLoughlin Desmond and her husband.
Sinead McLoughlin Desmond and her husband.

“It was after Sandy Hook that my kids started doing active shooter drills at school. It’s the craziest thing and they don’t bat an eyelid because they have never known anything else.

“Just recently here in Chicago, we had an incident where there was an African American teen shot by a police officer. There was a lot of controversy about it and the police officer was charged. We knew the verdict was coming out on a Friday and our neighbourhood and kids were threatened if the verdict didn’t go the right way.

“We were told to pick our children up early because the school was going into lockdown for safety purposes. I think that was the first time I was genuinely frightened.

“There is a percentage of the country whose identity seems to be wrapped up in the second amendment ( the right of the people to keep and bear Arms). But it’s not the majority of the country. Unfortunately, the system is set up though where the majority are being ruled, so to speak, by the minority.

“Yes, of course, we all think about going home. No one ever really thinks they’ll stay but you get married, have kids and keep pushing it back.

"Eventually, you wonder if you’d ever settle back down at home and it’s 20 years since I’ve lived there. We do have a house at home though in Cork. It’s a wee farmhouse we renovated and it’s nice to know the kids will always have an Irish base”.

Writer and school teacher Yvonne Watterson, from Antrim, left her hometown when she was 18. Initially, she lived in New York but later moved to Arizona where she married and had a daughter.

“I often feel guilty for having left Northern Ireland. I often wonder if perhaps the better thing would have been to stay and strive to see far beyond the images that flickered on our television screen at six o’clock every night. But I didn’t stay. I fled,” she admits.

Jessica Scheller.
Jessica Scheller.

“I remember watching my mum ironing and reacting to more news of bombs and deaths on the radio and I knew with certainty from a very young age that I would leave once I was old enough. And I did.

“I became an immigrant in an America I now no longer recognise, and turned my back on the vulnerable, tiny country that shaped and scared me.

“Not much younger than my now 22-year-old American daughter I spent most of the 1980s planning my escape. It was a turbulent and traumatic time in Northern Ireland. We lived and worked and played and prayed within a national crucible of doubt and suspicion, a half-empty glass. I suppose I always anticipated the worst; as such, I was rarely disappointed.”

Yvonne, who has written extensively about the Northern Ireland she grew up in, recalls a quiet Sunday morning, following a week of murder in the United States four years ago — the fatal shootings of two more African American men, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and a sniper attack on 12 police officers at a peaceful protest in Dallas by a military veteran who had served in Afghanistan and who authorities said “wanted to kill white people”.

America is now the place where my 22-year-old daughter, Sophie, has learned from an early age what to do in the event of a school shooting. She deals with it far, far more calmly than I do.

“When we first discussed the drills I was affected by her sadness for ME! She has heard all my stories about growing up — I was born in 1963 so I suppose I’m a “child of the Troubles”. She was far more accepting of the situation that she had to face in school than I was.

“It seems that some of the most powerful people in America care more about guns than children. I listen to people talking about arming teachers and I’m just horrified. It’s not the America of my dreams, that’s for sure. And I feel so guilty for having left my Northern Ireland for this”.

Jessica Scheller, a co-founder and President Emeritus of Women’s March Chicago, a group organised out of the aftermath of the November 2016 national general election, explains that the frequency of the active shooter drills is decided by each individual school and the area in which they are located.

Jessica Scheller’s children, Órla and Aidan.
Jessica Scheller’s children, Órla and Aidan.

“My children (aged 7) go to Catholic school and conduct active shooter drills in the same way that they practice tornado drills and the like. I believe they practice this a couple of times per year and yes, in Chicago, these drills are routinely conducted with students in Kindergarten and above.

“I was raised in South Dakota where gun violence is rare and firearm ownership is common. Citizens there are more open to having armed teachers in the classroom. I currently live in Illinois. Most people here are staunchly opposed to these measures.

The public sentiment seems to vary depending upon how great an issue gun violence is within their region on a day-to-day basis. I think most people believe this to be a very bad plan, but the gun lobby is very powerful and pushes out a lot of propaganda.

Speaking about gun violence it’s easy to misconstrue her pragmatic approach as one of resignation— which it certainly is not.

“In urban areas, children, particularly in depressed areas, face gun violence every day. I think many feel lost or forgotten in the gun violence conversation.

"For children in more affluent areas, gun violence is not a daily issue. Mass shootings are far too common but remain rare by comparison to random gun violence in urban centres.

I certainly feel more anxious but I cannot say as to how children feel. I believe some feel uniquely empowered to organise for change.

"Out of all of the terror of the mass shootings of the past years, there has been a beautiful development in the mass mobilisation of teens and young adults to organise and demand common-sense gun laws and to challenge the National Rifle Association.

“I watch them with hope”.

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