My oldest son turns 6-and-a-half on Monday and we celebrate with homemade lemon cake made in the Bellevue kitchen of Icy, the Jamaican lady who raised me.
When asked, he will tell you that Icy and her husband Clarence are the oldest people he knows.
The gap between 6-and-a-half and 90 is vast. Especially to small people. But to those of us somewhere in the middle, his half-birthday heralding the end of summer, seems to have come too soon.
In the coming days we parents will shepherd our kids to buy closed-toe shoes. We will purchase backpacks and lunchboxes. We will check bus schedules. We will add extra fabric softener to wash new uniform shirts.
Confining our minds to the safety of worrying over everyday details, we try to avoid the harder truth: when this school year begins, the lives of too many children will end.
In late June I joined more than 900 attendees for the Alignment-Nashville Social and Emotional Learning conference. Scarlett Lewis, whose son was killed in the 2012 Newtown massacre, gave the opening keynote.
She recounted the last days of her 6-and-a-half-year-old’s life at Sandy Hook Elementary School. What he loved. What she worried about. Her baby Jesse went to school and never came home. He and 19 other children were murdered by a mentally-ill young man.
Scarlett Lewis exuded a radical forgiveness as she spoke to us about her Choose Love Movement.
She challenged us to accept that the young man, who killed his mother and later himself, was once a child in our classrooms whom we may have acted, earlier, to help.
She pushed us to ask if, in our school safety plans, there was a plan for fostering a culture of social and emotional learning? Was there a culture of hope? A culture of empathy? A culture of learning to understand our own emotions, and those of others?
In her talk she cited the grim Centers for Disease Control statistic that middle school students were as likely to die from suicide as from traffic accidents. Notably, unlike adults, the rate of suicide for children is higher in the school year than in the summer.
As we return to school, policy makers from Washington, D.C., to Wilson County will point to their support of school safety and their funding of more police officers, more locks and more cameras. As a parent, I agree, those things are important.
But we need parents and policy makers to be equally vocal in advocating for what is happening on the inside. How do we make sure that our kids have a way to interact? To express emotion? To want to be in school? To learn to make sense of the world, and to care enough to build community with others? How do we make sure our kids find their passion? How do we ensure they learn to want to live with themselves?
As we return to school, let us summon the will of Scarlett Lewis and fight for the insides of our schools: for funding music, sports, arts and the educators who love our children. For many kids, these “non-academic offerings” are the ways we build paths into their lives. Without those paths, we cannot build character or community.
Many readers will say that music won’t stop bullets, or guns, or mental illness. They are right. But what happens on the inside of a hardened school is a part of preventing violence.
Learning and making music does create space for children to connect with one another and with their emotions. Because our kids may not be able to connect with us. (Or want to hear us). But they can hear the music.
And because, selfishly, I want my son to live to 7, and 19, and 90. Because I want him to one day be the oldest person he knows.
Alice Ganier Rolli’s son is a 5th generation Metro Nashville Public Schools student. She is the Vice President of QuaverMusic.com, a music and social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum used by teachers in all 50 states. This article was originally published in The Tennessean; July 28th, 2018