Jessica Gelt: Images of Tiny Bodies in Glittery, Fabulous Shoes Are Haunting Parents Everywhere | Column

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Children mourn the loss of students and teachers killed last week in an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.


DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS, ASSOCIATED PRESS








Jessica Gelt

Jessica Gelt


It’s the yellow warning tape that comes to me when I look at the images tweeted by the satirical site The Onion following the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Texas. Featuring the words ‘Sheriff’s Line Do Not Cross’, the yellow ribbon is draped around the schoolyard after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 19 young children who had just completed their honor ceremony.

Yellow is a bright and cheerful color. This is a favorite of my 6 year old daughter. It’s the color of the sun, sunflowers, balloons and candies. It’s the color of her hair, soft and fine as corn silk.

On the police tape, however, yellow is the color of every parent’s worst nightmare: that their child’s school has become the target of another mass shooting, and that perhaps their precious baby has been violently murdered.

It’s a fear we’ve lived with since the unthinkable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, after which absolutely nothing was done to bring about change when it comes to guns in America. In fact, since 20 children were shot in cold blood in Newtown, Connecticut, gun laws have actually eased there. The United States Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling soon striking down a longstanding New York law that prohibits people from carrying guns in public without first demonstrating a “special need” of self-defense.

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Last week, The Onion devoted its entire homepage to dozens of images of mass shootings dating back to 2014, along with the same devastating headline: “‘No way to stop this,’ says the only nation where this happens regularly.

The photo at the very top is of Robb Elementary in Uvalde, with the yellow ribbon surrounding a schoolyard that should have been filled with happy children. The image made the rounds on Twitter and quickly moved on. The Onion, who hails from Madison, has a cutting edge history when it comes to moments of extreme national tragedy like only sharp satire can. However, no one was looking at him laughing. Especially not parents, for whom this specific set of signifiers has a particularly horrific resonance.


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The image of a yellow ribbon, paired with police cars, flashing sirens, in front of a school – this is the image that fills parents with the kind of grief they can taste. The kind that keeps them up at night, wondering if they too will ever have to face such a scene at their child’s school.

The crushing news from Uvalde came about an hour before I was due to pick up my 6 year old daughter and her best friend from kindergarten. I couldn’t get to primary school fast enough. My heart was pounding and I wiped my eyes because I couldn’t see through my tears to drive. The radio did not help, as the scope and scale of the carnage in Texas began to crystallize.

I was not alone in my race to join my child. The schoolyard was filled with parents who showed up early, eager to hug their babies. Our worried and pained eyes met as we rushed to the queue. But we didn’t talk. We could not. What would we say?

The bell rang and the children burst from the school gates, shouting and laughing, chasing each other and running towards their parents who were waiting for them. Little children full of laughter and questions, wearing play-soiled clothes, untied shoelaces, messy hair, food-smeared faces, wearing smirks.

As we walked back to the car, my daughter and her friend talked about the dance party they had thrown at school and the glow-in-the-dark bracelets they had received as a gift. They wore paper crowns they had made in art class, decorated with tender children’s drawings: smiling faces, stick arms, flowers and birds.

The worry and fear were palpable as the parents realized that the grief was theirs forever, perhaps, unless real change was made in favor of common-sense gun legislation.

Last week had been spirit week at Robb Elementary, and the day of filming was a footless, no-fancy day, with kids encouraged to wear their fanciest shoes. We parents had to wrestle with images of tiny bodies in sparkly, fabulous shoes, which had made Tuesday mornings fun and exciting for children still learning to read.

I thought about it while putting my daughter’s feet in her own sparkly shoes as we got ready for school. It’s the kind that lights up when she runs. She finds so much joy in these shoes – because little kids can find joy in anything.

I thought about not taking my daughter to school the next morning. But I did. And I was not alone. We parents got up and started again. As we walked towards the main doors, we squeezed our children’s hands a little tighter. Many parents knelt at the school gate and hugged their children longer than usual. Our eyes are always filled with concern. We weren’t ready to talk yet.

I couldn’t help but think of a conversation I had with my daughter a few nights ago, just before Uvalde’s nightmare. I had just put her to bed when she got up and came timidly into my room. She said two things “concerned” her.

She asked if dying meant she would never imagine anything again. I said that was probably the case. I told him that everyone dies. That her daddy would die one day, that I would, and that she would too. But, I say, she didn’t have to worry about that for a very long time.

She asked how people die. I told her it happened when our hearts stopped beating – due to illness or accident, or when we were very, very old.

She nodded and then said, “Maybe if I die I’ll come back like a little baby somewhere else.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Some people believe it. Your Grandma Boo always said she would come back as a yellow butterfly. That’s why when you see yellow butterflies, you think of her.

She thought about it for a moment.

“I will come back as a black and white cat,” she said. “And I’m going to show up at your door, and you’ll know it’s me.” I’ll knock on your door and I won’t go.

I liked the image of the cat, but I didn’t like the idea that I would still be around when she wasn’t.

I said to her, “Oh, honey, I hope I’ll be gone sooner.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I said, “I hope I die before you do.” Moms should die before their babies.

“Most moms and dads stay alive until their babies are gone,” she said.

I could tell she needed me to tell her that I would never leave her, so I said, “OK, okay. I’m not going anywhere, as long as you promise me you won’t either.

I kissed her and put her back in place. Then I went to my room and cried.

Parents are not supposed to lose their baby. We’re not supposed to show up to school to be met with the shock and horror of yellow tapes and police cars on a clear blue day just before summer vacation begins. We’re not supposed to digest one mass shooting after another, always hoping that bullets won’t one day fly closer to home.

And we should never have learned to accept the standard line after such a tragedy happened, the one that currently covers The Onion’s homepage in an earth-shattering array of yellow tape and emergency vehicles. Like a relentless dirge, it reads: “‘No way to prevent this,’ says the only nation where it regularly happens.”

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