Column | Sparing kids from catastrophe

March 29, 2014 

I was nearly 8 years old when an Air Florida Boeing 737-200 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River on Jan. 13, 1982. I remember standing near the TV, watching the news coverage of a man treading water in the freezing river while trying to save passengers.

The previous March, I’d watched the same TV while reporters discussed the condition of President Ronald Reagan and three others shot at the Washington Hilton.

We lived in Maryland, but our lives were focused on Washington and, because my dad worked at The Post, on news.

Perhaps it’s fitting that one of my strongest memories of giving birth to my oldest daughter is that the TV was on in the hospital room and Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” was talking about the smoke emanating from a chimney in the Sistine Chapel. Also, contractions. Those I remember.

That little girl born just after the death of Pope John Paul II is now 8 years old.

She was born after 9/11, but the world has seen tragedy since, from a tsunami to a nuclear disaster to the killing of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.

And whenever such events occur, I retreat from the news. TV off. No NPR in the car. Newspapers removed from the dining room table.

When it comes to letting my kids learn about disturbing world events as they unfold, like so many of my friends, I have pushed back against my baby boomer tutelage, one that not only let me hear the news of the world but also let me see, with honesty, how it affected the adults in my life.

Could I spare my own kids from the confusion and anxiety that sometimes created?

I’ve long thought it was because my parents came of age in the late ’60s that I was given a childhood that honored my liberation and personhood, sometimes, it seemed, more than my youth when it came to news.

Maybe it was really because my dad brought home carbon typing paper and red grease pencils for editing, carried a reporter’s notebook and taught me, by age 6, “to always be one step ahead of your editor.”

As a kid, if there was news, I knew it. And this was before the explosion in information and technology.

Was it good that I knew, as a 3-year-old, that Elvis had been found dead in a bathroom? That I learned how to tie my shoelaces while watching reports on the Camp David Accords?

I remember sleeping on my big brother’s bedroom floor one night, afraid he might be drafted to fight a war somewhere in Africa. He was 12.

And going to a therapist who taught me breathing exercises because I worried Moammar Gadhafi would hijack the plane when I visited my grandparents in Florida.

That is why my daughter, the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of journalists, became aware of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 after more than two weeks had passed, despite the unusual story dominating the news.

One day last week, on a visit to my folks, my daughter and I went with my dad to CNN so he could talk politics on a morning show.

In the green room, she was quiet. In fact, for the first time in about six years, she went five minutes without asking a question that began with “why.”

People came in and out of the room. Many, it seemed, were aviation experts, quickly escorted to tiny interview rooms off the main hallway.

I turned and noticed the TV screen behind me, the one with its volume off, the one my daughter had been focused on since we walked in, the one showing ongoing coverage of the missing airliner: a host, journalists, experts, maps, re-creations, images of the plane’s flight path and potential fate.

There was no volume, but the kid could read. The captions and the crawl told the story.

So that was it. The jig was up.

It wasn’t a president’s shooting or a plane in the Potomac or an act of terrorism over Lockerbie, Scotland.

It was a plane with 239 people that disappeared from the world.

I asked her if she wanted me to explain what she had seen. She did. So I tried.

And then I asked what she thought might have happened to the plane.

“Maybe it landed on the moon,” she said.

She didn’t say it out of a naive understanding of space travel; she said it because she can still hold the hope that if reality is inscrut-able, then the unfathomable can somehow be reality.

I remember feeling that, too, when I was her age. It’s the part of the news story finished in your imagination. I can tell her that.

But some piece of the protective layer I had imagined I’d created around her has forever been torn open. I can’t patch it, and now she knows I made it.

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff blogs about life, parenthood and education at Lunch Box Mom and TheEducatedMom.com. She wrote this for the Washington Post.

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