This was the first week of school for me in Minnesota and Facebook was filled with beautiful images of children loved beyond measure standing at the bus stop or on the front porch with smiles, new shoes and backpacks filled with packages of crayons and tissues. I love the first day of school and I love that parents come unglued with pride in their children’s progression in education. I had friends with kids going off to college and those just starting Kindergarten and all of them posted the same things. “Can’t believe [name] is in [number] grade! Where does the time go?”
This week my Facebook newsfeed was also filled with images of another school photo; 11 year old Jacob Wetterling’s sweet smile paired with the grace filled words of heartbreak from his mother, Patty who had not stopped searching for him for nearly 27 years. The news of his remains being found in a rural area of Minnesota caused many of us to respond with “I was in [number] grade when Jacob disappeared. I remember being so afraid. I remember how my parents stopped letting me play outside. Where does the time go?”
The day I learned of Jacob’s horrific last moments I took some time alone to cry and pray and wonder. This wasn’t the pleasant, excited version of wonder that I typically think about. This was the painful, desperate kind of wonder that brings dark images and what-if scenarios to mind. Jacob’s Hope, the foundation that the Wetterling’s started in honor of their son asked us to leave our porch lights on every October 22nd in hopes that he would someday find his way home. I wondered if we would leave our porch light on this year, when we know that Jacob won't ever be coming back.
As I prayed for Jacob’s family, I also found my guilty heart pleading that my children would be kept safe and that I would never have to search for my child the way that Patty had. And yet, those sickening images forced me to wonder too if my children knew what to do if someone approached them. How would they know the difference between an opportunity to show kindness to a stranger and a pedophile who is luring them to unspeakable things? I can’t get my head around it.
The local news encouraged Minnesotans to grieve for Jacob, and to use the news stories as an on ramp to talk with our kids about being safe, speaking up if they feel uncomfortable, and avoiding situations that cause them to not be in control of their bodies. I knew that Jacob was an opportunity for me to frame this conversation in a way that fit my family values – I didn’t want my kids hearing about the abuse and death without already having a context from me. But where do you start? How do you find the balance between caution and fear?
Wonder of the Day #1728 Why is it called an AMBER Alert gave me a great place to start with my seven and eleven year old girls. They’ve seen the crawl on the bottom of the TV screen or heard the announcements on the radio, but we’ve never really talked about it. The article doesn’t sugar coat it and instead starts with a bang: “Has a child ever been abducted in the area where you live?” Yes, sadly there are children like Jacob, or Barway (a young boy in a neighboring school who disappeared in 2015 and my girls knew about our search for him and the ultimate news of his murder) and sometimes their stories end in tragedy. But the article goes on to talk about how many systems we have in place to help find children and get them help when they are not with the adults to whom they belong. It tells us that over 800 children have been found through the AMBER Alert system.
It’s not a conversation any parent or teacher wants to have, but we don’t have a choice. I’m sharing Wonder of the Day #1728 with everyone I know. I’m offering it to the parents of the students in my classes. I’m choosing to continue Jacob’s story over new crayons and tissues while struggling to find a way to balance the caution and fear. Next year, on the night before the first day of school, I’m going to leave the porch light on for Jacob and probably shed a few tears, but in the morning we’ll take pictures with new shoes, backpacks and sweet smiles of hope.