Margaret Renkl: We need to stay heartbroken about school shootings

After the massacre in Texas, the children’s author Kate DiCamillo captured the depth of our grief.

(Nancy Newberry for The New York Times) UVALDE, Texas — Young adults holding signs near the memorial in Uvalde, Texas.

Nashville • I wish I could report that shock was my first reaction to the news from Uvalde, but it was not shock. My first reaction to the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers was grief — terrible, garment-rending grief — followed by something dangerously close to resignation. Here we go again. And again and again.

When you know something unbearable will happen, and then it happens, grief and resignation sit together in the same pew.

My own children are long past school age, but I am the wife of a teacher, the mother of a teacher, the sister of two teachers. Many of my dearest friends are teachers. The ever-present threat of this carnage is terrifying, and it is personal.

So it is for all of us, even if we aren’t the ones making lesson plans or packing school lunchboxes. We were all once vulnerable children, entirely dependent on adults to protect us. Keeping children safe is the most fundamental obligation we have as a culture.

But too many of our leaders no longer accept the responsibility of protecting innocents. The elected Republicans who bitterly fight all sensible gun laws also fight access to affordable health care, including treatment for mental illness. And they keep getting away with their inaction because they are so adept at preying on our most primitive fears, using them to divide us from one another.

There are so, so many unfounded fears. A gun owner at the N.R.A. convention, for example, told a reporter from NPR that school shootings are “the cost of doing business” if we want to prevent the rise of tyranny. The murderer in Buffalo killed 10 Black people because he subscribed to the notion that white people are being replaced. School boards around the country have been besieged by parents who believe that books are manipulating their children. These conservatives never seem to ask if they themselves are being manipulated by the politicians and pundits who benefit from their fear.

I can’t even count the number of articles I have read since the tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde and Tulsa, or the hot takes on gun violence I’ve thumbed through on social media. It’s all a blur to me, reasonable plans and dangerous foolishness alike. None of it can penetrate my grief or my resignation. All that ink, all those pixels: Will they ever change anything?

Then I saw a Facebook post by the renowned children’s author Kate DiCamillo. The post begins with an account of letters from children who write things like “I cried when my teacher read this book” and “I want to be brave like the mouse in the story” and “When I grow up, I am going to write books, too, so that I can make other people feel this way.” The letters testify to the powerful connection between writer and readers, soul to soul, across space and time.

“A story read aloud creates a place of connection and empathy, a community,” DiCamillo wrote on Facebook. “It creates a safe place.”

More than 43 million copies of DiCamillo’s award-winning children’s books are in print — stories like “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” and “The Tale of Despereaux” and “The Tiger Rising” — and they are read-aloud favorites of teachers. It’s a fair bet that her books are on the shelves of every elementary and middle school in this country, including the classrooms where children have been executed by madmen. For DiCamillo, these massacres are deeply personal.

“We writers who write for kids offer our hearts in stories, and the kids offer their hearts in return; the teachers, when they read stories aloud, offer their hearts,” she wrote. “In this way, we bear witness to each other’s lives. It’s magical. And I am heartbroken that that magic could not save those kids, those teachers.”

This is not a political statement, and it is not a prescription for how to solve the problem of a country awash in guns and toxic resentment and groundless fears. This is a howl of grief, and I felt every word of it settling into my own shaken soul. Grief and fear are equally primitive emotions, but only grief can lead to any realistic hope for change that will keep our children and teachers safe.

In the usual way of social media, DiCamillo’s Facebook message is very short. I couldn’t help wondering if I were reading too much into it, imposing my own anguish on her simple post. So I called the author at her home in Minneapolis and asked. She answered by telling me a story:

“I was out walking late this morning, and some kids were running around a nearby elementary school as some kind of physical education thing. Two girls ran past me, and one girl said to the other girl, ‘That’s Kate DiCamillo.’ And then they both screamed, and they stopped, and they told every kid that came by. And one of the kids who going really fast, a boy, he stopped. And the girl said, ‘This is Kate DiCamillo,’ and he said, ‘Oh, Kate, hi, cool!’ and he hugged me.

“I worked so hard not to tear up when I was talking to them, but it made me cry when I was walking away. They were all about the same age as the kids would’ve been in Texas, and I thought, ‘I am so heartbroken.’

“And then I thought, ‘That’s my job: to stay heartbroken, to stay heartbroken about this.’”

Yes, there’s a place for fury here — a burn-the-whole-town-down fury at Washington’s continued inaction while American children are being blown to unrecognizable bits. But we need to take a cue from a master storyteller, too. We need to stay heartbroken about this.

We must study the photos of the beloveds we have lost, make ourselves look at the miniature caskets, learn the stories of brave children who should never have been called to heroism. We must speak to our leaders from a place of heart-wrenching, gut-churning, inconsolable grief. The endless policy discussions, the craven lobbying, the gun-industry talking points — all the brutal machinery of our gerrymandered, unrepresentative democracy — will grind on and grind past us unless we can make our feckless leaders taste our hot salt tears and hear our wails of pain. We need to make them feel our grief.

(Courtesy of Heidi Ross) Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.