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The Sex Lives of Parents in the Time of School Shootings photo

My husband and I were fooling around in bed – instead of warding off evil – when a punk kid at Oshkosh West High School landed us a spot on the Wikipedia entry for “List of school shootings in the United States (2000 – present).”

In lieu of having sex, we might as well have been smashing mirrors or refusing to knock on wood. My husband was a tail’s-up penny. Would I ever forgive myself for picking him up? In our nearly 30 years as lovers, bad timing had never proved so apocalyptic.

The morning had lulled me into thinking of romance. An already cold December, the wind made my collarbones ache. Body heat being the most efficient warm-up, we burrowed under the flannel sheets. Sun stained the windows yellow. All five of our kids were safely stowed away in classrooms, or so we believed. I set my phone on the dresser, muting everything around us from winter to worry.

But by the time I wiggled out from under the bed covers to collect my phone – half an hour later – nine texts had stacked on my screen like little death certificates stamped between 9:19 AM and 9:21 AM.

The top one – the final one – said, “Mom, I love you.”

The axis of my world cranked, then tilted as I unlocked my phone and tapped into Irie’s and my now conjoined fear:

Mom we are in lockdown

Mom I’m scared

In choir

Which is like the safest room to be in

But the lights are off and we are all huddled in the back of the classroom on the floor

They came on the loudspeaker and said we are safe but administration sounds scared

They are all breathing heavy

I heard them yelling when the loudspeaker came on

Mom I love you

I was frantic. And naked. I grabbed a threadbare shirt off the floor and a pair of Irie’s hand-me-down jeggings. I was bra-less, sockless, and sex-spun. Ryan and I had no plan but to close the physical distance between our daughter and us. Guilt was a riptide that threatened to pull me under as if I’d been cheating on my children with my own husband, their father. Jinx. Whammy. Doom. Newton’s 3rd Law. While we made love, Grant Fuhrman – that was his name – was making hate.

“Why were we having sex?” I said, as in dummy-dummy-dummy.

“I don’t know, we just were.”

“We made Irie wait more than five minutes for a response!”

“She’s OK, she’s texting us, she’s alive.”

“What if she died without hearing from us?”

“We’re lucky that didn’t happen.”

“I’m never having sex again.”

Intel, accurate and flawed, began to beam in from dozens of other sources. First and most mysteriously, a “sharp object,” a mystery weapon. Also, blood and gunfire, definitely gunfire. Snapchat reports from the E wing, the C wing, the W wing, our school like some flightless bird with too many appendages. Ambulances, police cars, stretchers. A scattershot of kids up and down city blocks, into the Masjid Qamar Mosque, Miravida Living, the Skatepark.

The previous day, on December 2, 2019, a School Resource Officer had shot a student at nearby Waukesha South High School when he wielded a gun. Within the previous year: Santa Fe, Highlands Ranch, Parkland.

Schools are in crisis, and have been, for longer than I’d been a mom. Meaningful change seems hopeless, so like many parents, my locus of control had turned to superstition and rituals, daily coping mechanisms. Screwing my husband was not on the no-no list necessarily, but by indulging in physical pleasure – on a school day, no less – I’d let down my guard. I’d channeled my psychic energy elsewhere. Now look. Children and teachers might be injured or dead. The predictably random nature of school shootings was going to be our sadistic undoing.

Irie reported by text that the SWAT team planned to clear classrooms and dismiss trapped students one-by-one. The reunification site was Perry Tipler Middle School, the place where I met Ryan in sixth grade. Violists – two musicians; one copy of “Ode to Joy.” He used to steal my hoop earrings off the music stand. I’d stab him with my rosined-up bow. A school shooting was not how I imagined our lives would come full circle.

We waited in our car on a nearby street from 9:30 AM until 10:59 AM. Beyond the windshield, the pageantry of law enforcement officers, first responders, parents, grandparents, and teens reminded me of holiday parades, except for everyone’s shell-shocked expressions. Parents showed up dressed in everything from pajama pants and three-piece suits to scrubs and construction vests. The eerie Career-Day, streets-blocked, strobe-light dystopian ambiance was an out-of-body experience. Who was I, not wearing underpants, the smell of sex on my hips? My grab-and-go shirt frayed at the seams. I was wearing it inside-out.

Greedy for rumors, I read the comments sections on Facebook, accepted un-vetted news. Bad information was better than none. Tidbits borrowed from an American history of school shootings were resurrected: a hit list, a mission, plenty of blood. What was the mystery weapon? Nobody knew. We imagined letter openers, Bic pens, staplers, and scissors.

A sleuthing mother sent me an essential piece of photo evidence – a screen shot of Grant Fuhrman’s Snapchat story, his Bitmoji wearing Devil horns tagged “Today’s the day,” stamped 1:50 A.M.

His Snap also read “Love You” inside the curl of the 5. This was always the confusion, wasn’t it? Who did Grant Fuhrman love, who loved him back, and why wasn’t it enough to extinguish his impulse to violence?

In Jamaica, Irie means “everything is alright.” She was alternating between feeling scared and cranky, calm but hot. The SWAT team was now lining the hallways in the M wing, Assault Rifles engaged. She’d never even seen a BB gun up close. When armed guards finally released her to a school bus for the reunification site, we too left the relative warmth of our car and joined the human wreath of adults wrapped around the middle school.

I reached for Ryan’s hand. He kissed my temple. I rummaged in my brain for the appropriate thing to say. I was still thinking about, still feeling, the effects of morning sex – these little flashes in the pan, so rare for us with limited privacy in our busy family lives. I realized that although guilt plagued me, endorphins were also surging through my veins. I wasn’t unraveling. Feel-good hormones were outpacing the adrenaline rush. I knew Irie was safe. We were being reassured nobody had died. We were lucky.

Facebook was a different story. Parents raged there.

“Some people are just bad seeds.”

“I would absolutely pay higher taxes to protect my babies from this.”

“Public execution!”

“Our schools are our homes.”

I tried to find the right smile for people we knew – lips only, a little grave. What a reprieve when we finally crossed the threshold into the school cafeteria. Parents covertly swapped information, an exchange that would tide us over until local news confirmed the truth.

After posting to Snapchat at 1:50 AM and a fitful night of “weird thoughts,” Grant Fuhrman couldn’t stop thinking about the school resource officer’s gun. How heavy was the weapon? How many bullets? What would shooting it feel like? He was fixated on it, or so he said in comments later not admissible in court. He’d confessed under the influence of pain meds, no lawyer or parent at his bedside. None of this altered the criminal charges: attempted first-degree intentional homicide.

Around the time I was packing my kids’ lunches, this 16-year-old kid had scoured his kitchen for the right weapon to disable Officer Mike Wissink. His best option was apparently not a knife; he had plenty of those, even one sharp enough to gut a deer. Instead, he selected a two-pronged barbeque fork. He slid it into the waistband of his pants, the sharp tines probably cold on his leg. He walked the halls like that; he sat through first hour like that.

Oshkosh West measures a mile if you walk the full city block; it accommodates about 1700 students plus staff, so it’s big enough that students’ proximity to the shooting varied widely. Irie was among hundreds of teenagers far enough away not to flee at the sound of gunfire but forced to shelter in place long enough that teachers deployed emergency bucket toilets.

Now inside the reunification site, a staff member with a radio voice, armed with a microphone, was calling student dismissal one by one. Teens were set free into the safekeeping of their guardians’ arms. When an escort finally collected our retrieval paperwork around 12:45 PM, more than three hours after Irie’s first texts, and disappeared into that gaping coliseum, I stood on tip-toes, scanning the crowd, as if re-enacting a hostage negotiation scene. Coming-of-age for Gen Z is characterized by violence now. It takes more than losing your virginity.

“Irelyn Ulrich, sophomore, come on down,” the voice boomed, and for another surreal moment, she was a contestant on The Price is Right.

The rest of the mainstream story goes like this: after waiting for the school resource officer to be alone in his office, Grant Fuhrman “smirked” at his ex-girlfriend in the hallway, entered Mike Wissink’s office, and asked him to consult his computer. Then he attacked. Wissink’s description of the ambush was so vivid that newspapers quoted him directly. His “head got rocked” and blows were “raining” on his head, blood spilling from his neck. Wissink used his gun – the gun – to disable Fuhrman, shooting him in the chest. This was the kablam that sent kids running. Wissink and Fuhrman were both bleeding and taken by ambulances to the hospital.

Years later, when I’d attend the Grant Fuhrman trial, I’d open myself up to a more complicated story of a depressed 16-year-old boy – don’t we all know a few of those? Maybe his wasn’t the suicide-by-cop tale his defense attorneys would peddle, but I believed some legitimate variation on it. In real time, though, Grant Fuhrman was still scary. Everything about the day was.

When I greeted Irie, I was careful not to weep, our bodies reuniting. She was warm and damp, potent and squeezed, like a bag of human tea steeped too long in hot water. When Irie was little, we used to call her Oxytocin Girl. Our first-born child, she could give me the best love-high – even better than intercourse. She electrified me with endorphins. She was the flesh-and-bone product of my sex life.

Holding Irie, I was able to release guilt for the first time since 9:30 AM. Sex would remain forever yoked to this school shooting, grief combined with an uncanny moment of clarity: life won’t be the same after this, regardless. But as I inhaled my daughter’s essence, I could also feel the old Make-Love, Not-War anthem resurrecting itself inside my heart, love being the neutralizer and the anti-toxin for all things bleak. How do we stop the violence? Where does the madness end? Nobody could answer these questions, but in this moment, Ryan and I were two lovers simply guiding our daughter outside, into the winter sunshine, heads-up, and home.