When Lily was five years old and at school in Kindergarten, she and two classmates helped the police nab a suspect wanted for murder who was hiding from police. The neighborhood streets were blocked off, her school was locked down while helicopters circled overhead, and news cameras crews arrived in time to see the perp led away by police in handcuffs. A local CBS reporter then interviewed Lily and her two friends. In the three years since it happened, it has become a family story that we remember at least once a year, and Lily is already tired of it -- and maybe for good reason. I’m proud of how she and her friends behaved, but it’s not the lasting memory of Kindergarten you want your kid to have.
Lily was playing at recess in the sheltered Kindergarten play area, which is fenced off from the rest of the school in its own private corner. They have their own tricycles, balls, jump ropes, play structures and planter boxes, all behind fences covered with ivy and honeysuckle. In spring, when this incident happened, the kids had discovered how to pluck the honeysuckle flowers, and slowly pull out the long stamen from the bottom. If you do it just right, there’s a drop of honey tasting flower sap left on the stamen. It’s nature’s candy, which you can lick off.
All this made her Kindergarten feel private, safe, and even idyllic. When I entered the gate to their classrooms, there was always a gaggle of happy five-year-olds playing and learning. It fit my nostalgic view of what Kindergarten should be like.
The only disadvantage to this private little “children’s garden” is that it butts up against apartment buildings on one side. Actually, It almost butts up against the building, but not quite. The apartment building has a walkway alongside, and then there’s a high fence right on the property line. If you jump that fence from the apartment buildings, you’re in a fenced open-air corridor that is about four feet wide, with the ivy and honeysuckle covered fence that frames the kindergarten area in front of you. This corridor is sixty yards long; there are trees roots, storage bins and some loose gardening tools back there.
Lily was jumping rope with her friends on this fine spring day, and they noticed a man jump over the high fence from the apartment buildings, and he landed in this corridor between the fences. He immediately found a broom and started sweeping. They’d never seen him before, but he looked busy enough that they assumed he was a new janitor.
Still, it was odd that he had jumped the fence like that.
Then they noticed he had a gun in his front pocket.
I can’t get more from Lily than that. Was the gun all the way in? What color was the gun? All she remembers is that it was a big gun, it didn’t fit all the way in his pocket, and that it was black. The man was wearing all black, so they didn’t see the gun at first, but he spent enough time sweeping back and forth on the other side of their fence that they spotted the pistol through the spaces in the ivy and honeysuckle.
Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe they added the gun for dramatic effect, as children often do. There are enough posters of bad men with guns in our culture, that if a five year old describes seeing someone she thinks is a “bad guy,” she might throw a gun in to seal the deal.
Lily and the others ran to their teacher and said, “Mrs. D, there’s a man with a gun on the others side of the fence!”
Mrs. D. is an experienced teacher and a mother of two, and she has heard many invented dramatic stories of “bad guys” from children, and one of her jobs is to help them glean the truth -- but this was not such a teaching moment. There was already a helicopter-circling overhead, and when she called the principal, he was not in his office.
“If you girls are lying, you will all be in big trouble with Mr. M.,” she said.
“We’re not! We saw him jump over the fence!”
That’s when Mrs. D. saw Mr. M. rushing across the asphalt of the main campus, holding a walkie-talkie, and everything lined up in her head. She rushed over to Mr. M., they spoke briefly, and then she rushed back and herded her kids back into the classroom, locked the doors and closed the blinds. The corridor runs right behind two Kindergarten classrooms, so although there are bars on the windows, he could have peered inside.
That’s when the lock-down began. Students and teachers were sealed in their rooms, and the school auto-dialed every parent and notified them that their children were safe, but to stay at home until notified. The news spread across the city. The neighborhood was blocked off as the SWAT teams moved in. TV news trucks and helicopters arrived and hovered on the perimeter and started broadcasting. Firefighters went from room to room, checking on the kids as they handed out bottle water and snacks.
Another crisis happened in mid-lock down. One of Lily’s classmates has a severe peanut allergy, and some of the packaged cookies the firemen handed out had nut traces in it. She went into anaphylactic shock, and Mrs. D. had to call for the firefighters to come back. They stabbed her with an ephedrine pen, and they took her away in a paramedic ambulance. She had a double adventure that day, and was the only one who got to leave the school early.
The suspect moved around on school grounds for a while, and then jumped back over the fences and went back into the apartment complex. That’s when the circling helicopters and the SWAT teams tightened their noose and grabbed him.
It took several hours to search the apartments, the neighborhood, and the school to make sure there were no accomplices hiding, and then the police gradually opened up the streets again. By the time the police finally led the suspect out in handcuffs, CBS news was in place they got the video shot that aired during the 6 p.m. news report.
The suspect was wanted in a gang-related double homicide that had happened six months prior, and he’d been living underground ever since, moving from place to place. An ex-girlfriend finally turned him in.
Then the news interviews began. Some moms, including my wife Robin, insisted that during the interview the cameraman only shoot the young heroes from the knees down, so the kids could not be targeted by any of the suspect’s disgruntled fellow gang members. All you see are her silver shoes. Check it out:
The kids were supposed to be out of school for a half day at 1:30 p.m. that day, but they finally left campus at 5:30 p.m. The Kindergarten parents gathered in Bradley’s backyard for his late-starting birthday party and Spring Break kick-off.
We stood around, drinking wine and beer and staring at our screaming kids, dazed, wondering what had happened to the world since we were in Kindergarten.