It was 1983 and I was in 3rd grade. I don’t remember much about what I learned that year, but I do remember seeing my teacher’s dress stuck in her pantyhose after a trip to the restroom. We all tried not to laugh when we could see her underwear while she wrote on the blackboard. I remember tornado drills, sitting on my knees under my desk, hands guarding my posterior neck.
That summer I was 9, I went to camp and won the rappelling award. I spent afternoons at the pool and traveled to Colorado with my family to skip rocks in the creek and eat ice cream.
I dressed as a baby for Halloween that year, wearing a pink onesie and carrying a baby bottle to the school carnival. I had a best friend and we had sleepovers almost every weekend. We started wearing training bras.
When my daughter was 9, it was 2013 and she had intruder drills at her elementary school instead of tornado drills. That was the year she put leggings under her skirt on the way to school but realized she looked different and removed them halfway through the school day, newly self conscious like a 9-year-old can be.
When my daughter was 9, she took ballet and jazz and proudly displayed her ribbons from the swim meets. She and her best friend played with their American Girl dolls for hours and took photos of each other for what would eventually be their album cover. She took a book to read at recess. She sang like an angel.
When my son was 9, it was 2016. He, too, did intruder drills at school and he developed his little clique of friends. They called themselves the smart jocks. He went to camp and lobbied for a Gaga ball pit on the school playground. He wrote stories in his journals.
He wore sunglasses on the day he didn’t make the track team so people wouldn’t see his sad eyes. He slept with his game ball after a strong baseball game and made up a dance to a Bruno Mars song. He thought he would probably play for the Astros some day.
When my youngest son was 9, it was 2018. He, too, had intruder drills at school and I reassured him that all of that was just practice for being safe. He and his best friend really and truly thought they’d play for the Houston Rockets some day.
When he was 9, he fine-tuned his sense of humor and played tricks on his siblings like only a third child can. He loved ice cream and hated reading books. He loved his baseball team and drew incredible artwork. He rode his bike everywhere.
Nine-year-olds are so precious. Smart and old enough to start to believe they can make a difference in the world, yet young enough that they’re not challenging their parents or talking back.
They are still innocent enough to believe the world is a good place, and that they’ll be safe. Given a loving upbringing, they trust their teachers, their coaches, their parents, the world. They’re still young enough that we can protect them from the evening news. They don’t yet carry a smartphone as a social crutch.
I had a 9-year-old come to me, her pediatrician, because she had been kicked out of a recess club. She’d been in the club one day, and the next day, she was told she wasn’t in the club anymore.
This precious girl was getting her first knock-down, and it hurt. We talked about ways to believe in herself, ways to find different friends, what it feels like to be left out. She had tears in her eyes but was trying to pull herself through it. I was so proud of her for talking about how she felt, but she was traumatized.
This week I was introduced to three more 9-year-olds, not in person but on my TV as theirs joined the names of children lost in school shootings. As their names were revealed and their eyes stared into the camera and into my eyes, I was gutted. I saw myself as a 9-year-old. I saw my daughter. I saw my sons. I saw my patients.
These were children whose every day would’ve been spent learning, and laughing, and figuring out what it means to be human. Like I did back in 1983, and like my kids did. They would’ve dressed up for Halloween and been newly self-conscious and loved their families.
They might have been kicked out of a club, and that would’ve been hard enough. But these children were kicked out of life, and that makes me so incredibly and horribly sad and angry. For their parents and families. For their teachers. For their teammates and best friends.
For their classmates who joined the ranks of the single file lines of children leaving their school, hands on shoulders in front of them, stepping over bloody horror to get to safety. Guttural fear on their faces. For the little girl whose photo was taken as she looked with utter terror and despair from a school bus window.
If being kicked out of a club hurts so very much at 9, I cannot imagine the trauma therapy this generation of kids will need after seeing what they’ve seen, fearing what they fear. We are the adults in the room, and we have to — we must — do better. We have to do better as a society. Our elected officials must do better. We have to protect our greatest treasure: our children.
These three 9-year-olds deserved, and every 9-year-old deserves, to see year 10. This week I will say a prayer for those who are traumatized, and those who are grieving. I cannot imagine the sadness they feel. I am so sorry for their loss. I will write to process my own grief, but just like thoughts and prayers, words are not enough. Our kids need more. Let’s do better.