This one comes to us from Jay Wamsted.

It was only after the Parkland tragedy that the high school where I teach began having active shooter drills.

We had dusty protocols in place already, and I can remember doing some sort of drill years ago. This winter, however, we reacted to the mass shooting in Florida by taking stricter preventative action. And so, one week later I was huddled in the corner of my classroom with thirty-odd seniors, pretending that we were on lockdown as our principal mock-terrorized the building, beating on doors and demanding entry. We were under strict orders not to let anyone inside—he even sent popular students from room to room to beg their way in, as a test, but our doors were to remain locked to keep the rest of us safe. No one was to be trusted, even in a drill.

After school the teachers gathered in the auditorium to brainstorm and raise concerns. What if we had been between classes—where should we go to hide? What if the principal couldn’t get to the intercom—how would we know we were in danger? How were we to trust a text message from an administrator—what if the phone had been compromised? What if hiding in corners made us easy targets—were there other alternatives? What of the teachers who were in the library? The gym? The lunchroom?

The administrative team addressed these concerns, but their solutions became increasingly convoluted. For example, they decided we needed a code word to ensure the integrity of communications and that it needed to be changed regularly for safety’s sake; we were to attend constantly to email, the intercom, and our phones for the current word. We decided that in the event of a hallway-traffic shooter, students were to head back to the class that they had attended most recently, unless they happened to be closer to their next class; a student on your previous roster could be admitted in the first minutes of the lockdown, but no later. They piled contingency upon contingency, but every time we reached the end of a plan another problem would present itself.

The room was gripped by fear in a way I had not seen in my thirteen years of teaching; everyone was tripping over each other to give voice to their particular nightmare. The loss of control was paralyzing.

A few weeks later my five-year-old son, Simon, had a meltdown during swim lessons.

It happened in the deep end when his teacher wanted him to swim across the pool widthwise. I had seen him all-but perform this feat in a previous lesson, but something about the day undid him, and he lost it. I had to switch in one of my other children, John, and put Simon on the sidelines. In between sobs, he explained to me that he couldn’t swim across the pool when he couldn’t touch—not now, not ever.

I convinced him to come out into the shallow end with me, but he was still a mess. It seemed as if every skill he had learned had left him—he flopped around and gasped for air like he had never been in the water before. During the last ten minutes of the lesson, I coached him back to about fifty percent of where he had been just days before, but he wouldn’t return to his teacher. I had to stay within arm’s reach of him the entire time; he grabbed onto me over and over again.

We were sitting on the steps of the pool waiting on his brother when I said to him, “Hey, buddy, I was proud of you today. You were really brave getting back out there.”

“No, I wasn’t brave at all,” he replied, forlorn. “I was still scared the whole time.”

I paused. Hemingway described courage as “grace under pressure,” but this seemed an overblown way to talk about bravery with my son. Instead, I tried to explain that courage is not an absence of fear; rather, it is seeing something that makes you afraid and doing it anyways. He showed courage because he trusted me even when being brave was the furthest thing from his mind.

My words fell on deaf ears. He shook his head and looked away, visibly upset.

* * * * * * * *

The truth is that Simon had nothing to fear in the pool that day. I was with him the entire time; even when he is with his teacher, I watch to make sure he is safe. Deep end or shallow, had he needed me for even an instant, I would have been there, scooping him up for air. Though I was unable to convince him of the fact, his father had the situation under control.

The tricky thing, of course, is that he is absolutely correct to feel something like fear here. Deep water can be dangerous, and needs to be respected. I will never forget the feeling of watching a two-year-old John sink to the bottom of a pool at a family gathering, wide-open-eyes staring helplessly out through the water. I grabbed him immediately, thankfully, no damage done. It was a haunting moment, however, for my wife and me.

This respect that approaches fear is a healthy response to certain stimuli; Proverbs famously tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” How am I to explain this to a frightened child, however? Jesus leaves us with the blessing of his peace, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Where, though, do we find the boundary between the wisdom of showing respect and the futility of being afraid? And, to think about Simon, what does it mean to bridge this gap with courage?

At the beginning of Isaiah 43, God says this: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you go through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, and the flames will not set you ablaze.” There are situations that will unmoor us—we all walk through rivers and flame—but we should be confident going forward because God is walking with us. I have to confess, however, that despite this biblical encouragement I find myself under a recurring shadow of fear at the end of every day. I cannot sleep, even after four babies and nearly a decade of fatherhood, without sneaking around the house in order to make sure each of my children is still breathing.

No doubt some will find this habit ridiculous, an impotent grappling for control in the dark of the night. All I can say is that the responsibility of tending to these four small lives can lead me to an irrational need for control. For the most part, I believe that God is going with me through the fire and the flood. I just need to be sure before I can sleep.

* * * * * * * *

Given my nightly compline, I cannot judge my colleagues for their loss of courage that day in the active-shooter meeting. We all have our demons; mine just happen to plague me at home.

As for school, soon enough the fears proved to be well founded. One day that spring a strange buzz began going around last period—updating phones fueling urgent whispers. Long before I got official word from my principal, I heard from a student: check the news; something bad is going on outside.

Our high school filled the internet feed. A girl’s ex-boyfriend had initiated a fight with her current boyfriend, requiring the intervention of multiple principals and a police officer. Afterwards the girl and her ex ended up alone in the parking lot. She tried to get away in her car, but he used a gun to smash in a window, cutting her up in the process. Then he fired several shots in the air before running off into the expansive woods that ring our property.

I found the details out later; all the internet knew was that allegedly shots were fired at my school less than an hour ago. I found this hard to believe—why weren’t we on our practiced lockdown?—but eventually we heard from our principal in an email. Though he downplayed the altercation by claiming it was under complete control, in fact the shooter was still at large. School was dismissed that day through police checkpoints, and everything came to light in yet another panicked staff meeting. I missed out on the facts, though. Believing the blasé email, oblivious, I skipped the emergency meeting and slipped out a back door for Simon’s scheduled swim lesson.

I arrived home to an alarmed wife: three separate people had alerted her to the internet reports, and I didn’t answer my phone when she called. She was mostly confident that I was fine, that no news was good news. In general, she trusts God in the fire and the flood. She just wanted to know for sure.

The next day at school we updated protocols again. Several days later they arrested the shooter, but having blown our chance at communicating in an actual crisis, I’m not sure anyone felt the safer for it.

My colleagues had hoped control could substitute for courage. They were wrong.

A few weeks later Simon swam across the pool.

It wasn’t in his regular lesson, and it wasn’t in the deep end. Rather, it was with me, and we were in the shallow part by the steps. Ahead of time, however, we talked through the attempt, how he would swim all the way across without reaching his feet down. It took him a couple of tries—he kept standing up to “adjust his goggles”—but finally he made to the other side. We both were thrilled.

He confessed to me later that he was proud of himself but still a little worried about the deep end. I smiled and told him again that he was brave. He may have been afraid, but having learned to swim within reach of my grasp, he now trusted me enough to step out and swim in the shallows. Soon enough he would be able to go out alone into the deep water, confident that his father is present and watching.