Apodaca: Our children, first and foremost

I am not a particularly brave or noble person. But like every other parent I know, I possess an unwavering certainty that I would lay down my life for my children.

Yet we parents also know that we can't always protect our kids from danger, a fact that was brought into heartbreaking relief by the recent school shootings in Connecticut that robbed 20 children of their lives.

Just a day later, that realization was driven home yet again when shots rang out at Fashion Island. Although no one was seriously injured, the incident was another reminder that brutality knows no boundaries; the innocence of a first-grade class and the joy of holiday shopping can be swept away in one monstrous act of horror.

Even as we mourn together, each of us must find our own way to work through the myriad of feelings we experience in the face of such tragedy. The thought of Christmas and Hanukkah gifts lying unopened is almost more than we can bear, yet we know we must somehow summon the will to live with the unlivable, understand the incomprehensible, and appreciate beauty in a world that is too often ugly and unforgiving.

For me, the effort to find a spark of hope amid the madness lies in the astonishing bravery and composure shown by the teachers, administrators and first-responders in Connecticut. It is in the image of a principal rushing toward the bullets in a final act of self-sacrifice; the stories of teachers who calmed their students, sometimes using their own bodies as shields, and in recognition of a community banding together to comfort its own.

Every day we entrust others with the care of our children, for we know we can't do it all alone. We send our kids off with a prayer that their caregivers will take their charge with the upmost gravity, that they will defend our children just as we would. The adults in charge at Sandy Hook Elementary did just that, in some cases at the cost of their own lives.

Thankfully, the vast majority of us will never be put to that test. But each of us has in our lives armies of everyday heroes who help us watch over that which is most precious to us and to whom we owe an immeasurable debt.

This has led me to realize in the past few days that I too seldom take the time to thank in proper and sincere fashion all the many people who have helped me raise my kids. They include teachers who have inspired my sons to learn; doctors who've returned late-night calls; police, firefighters and lifeguards who stand ready to rush toward danger without hesitation; and friends and neighbors who gladly lend a helping hand.

It's people like an elementary school teacher who kindly gave my son extra time to clean his desk while patiently dispersing advice and encouragement, and our longtime pediatrician who made the effort to get to know my boys, committing to memory important details of their lives. It's the middle-school teacher who volunteers to photograph school events and launches charity drives for his fellow military reservists, and the school-based police officer who seeks out troubled kids before they go off the rails.

Just one day before the shootings I was reminded of the immense value of a caring teacher. I shared a brief, friendly conversation with one of my son's instructors, a woman with a reputation for exacting standards. I came away feeling that she was driven by a deep commitment to her students, and I was profoundly grateful.

That gratitude should also extend to the Newport-Mesa school board and administrators. I have often criticized the district leadership, and no doubt will do so again. But not today.

Today they deserve thanks because just four days after the school shootings, the board put together a special meeting to address school safety and asked police and school officials to weigh in. Despite the somber theme, the discussion was refreshingly substantive.

Particularly interesting were reports by Costa Mesa Police Chief Tom Gazsi and David McGill, deputy chief of the Newport Beach Police Department, who talked about ongoing training for "active shooter" events. Since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, tactics for these types of incidents have changed considerably, they said, and methods continue to be refined and updated.

"You'll never know about the things we've prevented," McGill said.

Some of the ideas floated during the meeting were impracticable, even potentially dangerous (armed teachers, panic buttons in every classroom). Other suggestions were rooted in common sense (identification badges for all employees, visible entry points, security cameras, returning school resource officers to Costa Mesa, functioning locks). Each question was met with a reasoned response, and the board promised to revisit the subject in the new year.

Whatever safety enhancements result from this effort, we all know that ultimately we will never be able to keep our children completely secure, even in the familiar warmth of our own homes.

But surely we can take some comfort in knowing that we live in a community that values the welfare of our children first and foremost. In this season of giving, I can think of no greater gift.

Happy holidays to all.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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