Trust me, you haven’t been to a PTO meeting like this. One minute we were lamenting the paucity of baked goods at the school picnic. The next we were locked in a neighboring room, surrounded by puzzles and crayons, hiding from a gunman on the loose.
When it was over, we had mastered a critical crisis-management skill: Don’t panic.
Lately, our laid-back burg has seen a wave of uncharacteristic agitation, desperation, and violence. There was the pistol-waving Iraq War vet who stood on a freeway overpass, holding police at bay and backing up traffic for hours. There was another suicide off Cold Spring Bridge — the fourth this year on a landmark that’s averaged just one annual jumper since 1963.
What’s fueling the freak-out? I’m guessing it’s the sight of our economy — and, with it, our security — sinking slowly under water, gurgling and kicking as it goes.
Panic sets in. And it multiplies.
We parents were brainstorming ways to wring auction items out of belt-tightening retailers when the school’s graceful-under-pressure director burst into our meeting. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but I need you to move next door so we can usher our P.E. students into this room. We have a safety issue on campus…”
There was a second of stunned silence, then a collective clamor as we quickly gathered up our memos and coffee cups and skittered into the room next door.
What on earth? Could it be a pesticide-spraying mishap on a nearby farm? Was there a flasher in the parking lot? We tried to carry on with our meeting, none of us willing to be the first to get hysterical. “So…um…any news on the Book Fair?” But panic was boiling just below the surface. “What’s going on?” one mom mouthed to another.
When the director returned, she shut the door behind her. Police were searching the vicinity for a gunman who had robbed a nearby business and escaped capture. They wanted us to stay indoors until further notice.
I was frightened. We all were. Here we were locked in a windowless room, our kids penned in some other room nearby. Do they know what’s going on? Are they in danger? Are we all?
I ducked into an attached bathroom where a frosted window was open a crack. I peered out, looking for…what? Evidence that things were OK? That they weren’t? There was no one in sight. The landscape was eerily still. And silent.
But stranger still was the vibe in our room where, through sheer force of will, a dozen moms and a lone dad kept the chit-chat light and lively despite our jitters. We poured more coffee and exchanged weekend plans, as if preschool-stalking gunmen were a routine inconvenience of life. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement that panic is contagious, and treacherous. And that calm is the only antidote to crisis.
If we had heard a gunshot, I doubt you could have kept a single one of us in that room. A mad rush of caffeine-addled parents would have flooded the campus, ready to throw down any perp who dared infect our Utopian outpost with his crippling desperation.
But nothing happened. After 10 minutes, we were released. The robber was in custody, the lock-down — and our meeting — abruptly over. As I drove away, I fought back a wave of anxiety. Post-election, mid-economic collapse, society is in a strange place. We’re not as safe as we feel. And things are sure to get worse before they get better. I don’t know how much despair will ricochet through town as jobs are lost and rents are raised. But I know what to do when it threatens to hold you hostage: Don’t panic.