Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Potter Gray Elementary School. Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The kind of school they make movies and TV shows about. The kind of school where the moms are in a perpetual state of cupcake baking and party planning.  Where the dads show up no matter what. Where the sixth grade goes to Space Camp and the parents fund raise to make sure Every. Single. Kid. is on that bus when it heads south for Huntsville, Alabama.

The kind of school you wish every child in America went to.

Four of our five children spent at least some of their early academic days within these walls. That’s where the three oldest, the “big girls”, were on the exact day of the first school shooting I can ever remember.

March 13, 1996. 

I can’t recall a single solitary thing about that day other than finding out an atrocity had occurred somewhere far away. 

Dunblane. A primary school in Scotland. A little place not much different than our own Potter Gray.

That night my husband and I looked at each other across four rowdy heads. I touched my belly and thought about the fifth little Pennington we would meet in a few short months. 

Scotland was so far away. But was it, really? So we talked to them: we talked to our kids about something we believed, we hoped, could never occur. 

We told them what gunfire sounds like. “Firecrackers popping off all around.”

We taught them to lie down. Wherever they were. Whatever they were doing. 

We said to them, “Play dead. No matter what happens. No matter what you see or hear. Play dead. Don’t make a sound.”

Then we role played, in a gruesome and macabre after-dinner game that horrified and sickened me.

I looked away with tears in my eyes.

Tears for stealing their innocence far too soon. Tears for the mothers in Scotland who couldn’t feed their kids supper, or run their baths, or check the calendar for dentist appointments they would never need.

Tears for this world into which our own soon-to-be-five rowdy heads would go, without us. Who knew what, or whom, they would meet?

Then April 20, 1999. 


How could this be? What is this world?

I don’t remember where I was when I heard, or what we said to the kids. What I do remember is us and a friend, sitting up far too late on a week night, transfixed before news coverage, too sick to do anything but share the same space, breathe the same air.

There is no desk, no door, no playing dead, sufficient to save them. Did any parent sleep that night? 

Or after Heath High School, a few short miles down the road in western Kentucky? Newtown? Parkland? You know the names. And those are just the first ones that pop into my mind.

May 24, 2022. Robb Elementary School.

One day earlier we celebrated with our grandson at a happy, music-filled festivity complete with cupcakes at his own movie-worthy school in Nashville.

And then my phone ignited with the fear, the torment, of young mothers terrified for their children. Those same girls we taught to play dead are mothers of their own rowdy heads, and what has changed?


There’s precious little innocence left in this world.

We adults have done–are doing–precious little to protect it.

So play dead, little ones.

Play dead.

Oh, Stay alive, little ones.

Stay alive.

Be strong, little ones.

Be strong.

For it is we, the grown-ups, who are weak.

The children of Dunblane and their teacher, Gwen Mayor

9 thoughts on “Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

  1. Ms. Mayo says:

    Our heart wrenchingly reoccurring American tragedy… and thank you for sharing these honest words. As a teacher in an American elementary school, I know we practice our emergency drills and have our intruder plans in place, down to our reunification maps. We lock our building doors. Then, unlock them for those who ring the bell, and pass our split-second glance inspection through large glass entries. AND we ask, “Why does this keep happening?” In our adult clusters we debate gun laws, growing mental illness issues among our youth, needs for more school counselors, sizes of our schools, arming teachers in the classroom, and on and on. We have to keep at this, with all the different things we are trying and more- not to terrify our children, but to send the loudest message out there that help can be found for those who are struggling and there are other solutions, and that our children are in safe places and will be protected. Thanks for your words. For your straight-to-the-heart acknowledgement of what we are all thinking about.


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