anne mikolay 2018When I was a kid, back to school shopping meant marble notebooks, folders, number two pencils, loose-leaf paper, and that old, Catholic school “must-have,” the blue ink cartridge pen. In grade school, carrying a contemporary lunch box was important, and I worried constantly that I would break my glass-lined thermos, which I always did. I happily rode the school bus with my friends. There were no bullies on the bus, and the worst thing we had to contend with was the lack of air conditioning and bus windows that were difficult to open. In high school, not looking like a dork was paramount, quite a daunting task when wearing an ill-fitting blazer, pleated skirt, and saddle shoes. We Catholic school girls defensively traveled in groups on the city bus to collectively ward off verbal assaults by the more fashionably dressed public school kids we often encountered.

In grade school, the scariest threat we faced was being singled out by a nun in a long, black dress and a stiff, white headpiece that looked like a paper plate around her head. In high school, the world upped its game, and the nuns conducted mandatory air-raid drills to save us from Russian attack. We were lined up in the hallway, face to the wall, arms raised above our heads. Only the nuns took these “duck and cover” drills seriously. To us high school girls, air-raid drills meant nothing more than momentary release from boring lessons. When I asked how standing in the hallway protected us from annihilation when a Russian bomb would most definitely bring the roof down upon us, I was told to be quiet and lean against the wall. I obeyed and promptly dismissed that useless reply, so similar to the nuns’ standard “it’s a mystery” response given to any weighty doctrinal questions raised by our curious minds.

That was then. This is now. Such simple school days are a thing of the past.

This year, back to school shopping includes an item nobody ever dreamed a child would need to make it through a school day: a bulletproof backpack. A bulletproof backpack is a stark (and dark) contrast to my glass thermos or my silly saddle shoes. While we feared being singled out back then by the nuns for some harmless infraction or another, today’s kids fear an active shooter. While the verbal abuse of some cranky nuns compromised our self-esteem, I can’t imagine how the threat of death in a classroom affects today’s children. We may not have always been happy campers in my school, but we never felt unsafe. We may have had verbal conflicts with kids from other schools, but it never occurred to us we might be shot by one of them. While we giggled our way through air-raid drills and gave no serious thought to what we perceived as a distant threat, today’s students contend with a very real threat they have seen play out in real time in the media. While we complained we couldn’t fit all our text books in our uniform school bags, today’s school kids are carrying bulletproof backpacks. And while I’d like to say bulletproof backpacks are unfathomable, foreign to our culture, the fact of the matter is bulletproof backpacks will soon be commonplace.

The nuns were absolutely right. All of life is a mystery, most especially the hatred that lurks in some hearts, that pervasive evil that has brought us to our new normal.