The other day, my daughter discovered the door to an old fallout shelter.
She was with her grandfather. They were walking through the big green fields near a neighborhood church. Like something out of a storybook dream, there in the grass they found a stairway leading down into the earth.
At the bottom of the stairs, all dark and damp with vines reaching in like fingers, was a door. In a perfect childlike way, my pony-tailed little girl's mind exploded with imagination: on the other side of the door, a magical world.
Her grandfather, born of the atomic age, knew otherwise.
"It was a fallout shelter, or at least a cellar built to withstand something," he told me later.
Picture this moment please. Separated by six decades (he nearing retirement, she just now able to double-knot her tennis shoes), they stood together on the doorstep to something neither quite fully understand. To one, it was a gateway to magic. To the other, it represents annihilation and the worst fear of humankind.
There together, they stood holding hands. Innocence and loss of innocence. The young and the old, both perhaps in their own way wondering the same question: how do we make sense of this world we've stumbled upon?
It is the same question being asked in the city of Cleveland, Tenn.
There, city leaders hope to finish construction soon on a new elementary school. And inside every classroom: an about 140-square-foot safe room.
So if the monsters come, like tornadoes or bullets from a school shooter, everyone has a safe place to go.
There's talk that perhaps no other school in America is constructed this way. The first of a kind.
My early thoughts: I want my kids to go there. How reassuring. What courageous policy. What a life-affirming message it sends to parents, teachers and, especially, kids.
But these rooms are also haunting: Is this the mark of days to come?
Have we stumbled onto some doorway that portends a world where bulletproof walls are the norm?
Is there no way to detour around this? No chance for redemption?
Can't we put the monsters back in the closet?
There is this lesson that life keeps wanting me to learn. I keep running away, not listening, not wanting to hear.
The lesson goes something like this: You can't keep your kids completely safe. Thinking you can is an illusion. A mirage. A hazy dream.
You have to let go.
In the quiet rooms of my heart, I know this to be true. The storms can come any minute, the monster can shriek and what was whole in the morning is now ruined by the afternoon.
But my first, second and last instinct is to protect and guard and guard again.
So yes to safe rooms. Yes to a thousand safe rooms.
But also no.
When my little pony-tailed girl found that door, her mind went wild with fairytale colors and dreams. No knowledge of Khrushchev and war games, she imagined the best was there to meet her.
This is what kids do.
We adults must also.
Coat and cover the insides of those safe rooms with paintings of unicorns and warlocks, castles and pots of gold. Soak the walls in poetry and proverbs. Carpet the floor in red velvet. Promise everyone cookies and wonder, laughter and lemonade.
Visit it often, not just on scary days. Dream in that safe room dreams worth standing ovations. Picture and imagine worlds where love wins and heroes are plentiful. Talk about how to build such worlds. Discover the weak spots of monsters.
Assure kids that they can create this world to come, where violence is less and goodness more. A world to come that loves, stabilizes and promises.
"The seeds of a nuclear arms race are indeed embedded in human nature and political institutions, and so are the seeds of stable peace," writes peace scholar Michael Nagler. "Human choices, individual and collective, nourish the soil that determines which of those seeds will flourish and predominate."
Yes, but these are adult words.
Winnie the Pooh says it much better.
"Well, you'll see Piglet, when you listen," Pooh tells his friend. "Because this is how it begins."
It always begins with children and what we tell them about the world around us. Build the safe rooms, and make them as safe as possible: not just to keep monsters out, but to keep dreams and hope and imagination inside.
That day, the door to the fallout shelter was locked. My daughter and her grandfather could not get in.
The question still stands: What is on the other side?
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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