By Lisa Whaley
My daughter called from college early one morning last week. Even before I answered it, I knew there was something wrong.
After all, her first class isn’t until 11 a.m.
“Mom, we had a fire,” was her cheerful 7 a.m. greeting.
Mary is a freshman at Western Carolina University. She is in the college’s Honors program, so she lives in one of the college’s honor dorms — Balsam.
It is a fairly new, beautifully designed and generally quiet building in which to reside.
Except last Wednesday night.
Or to be more accurate, Thursday morning.
Students, already weary from finals’ preparation and end-of-school-projects, were sleeping peacefully when the fire alarms went off at 4 a.m.
Fire alarms weren’t that unusual in Balsam, my daughter explained. The ongoing campus joke was that despite the high-IQs these honors students supposedly had, they couldn’t seem to make popcorn without burning it.
Everyone tumbled out of the building. Some thought it was just an oddly timed drill or perhaps another burnt bag of popcorn. Others were simply tired and confused.
It would be four hours before my daughter was able to return to her room, and she was one of the lucky students whose area had not been affected by either the sprinklers or the smoke.
According to rumors yet to be verified, a student had knocked over a lit candle and accidentally started the fire. (Candles are, of course, forbidden in the dorms for obvious reasons.)
Of course, for the students impacted, the timing of the fire couldn’t have been worse. Everything had been left in the rooms, Mary explained, even the rooms that would soon be doused in water and smoke. Many a student spent Thursday morning in a panic over the state of their final papers and projects — including the status of one very frightened guinea pig that was part of a crucial end-of-term science assignment.
Fortunately, there were no reports of any serious injuries. The college worked hard to get everything back up and running.
And the May 8 Balsam fire will probably become just one of the “when I was in college” crazy memories to relive many years in the future.
These WCU students were lucky.
Not so fortunate were the University of North Carolina at Charlotte students just two days earlier when, on April 30, a gunman opened fire on the campus, killing two and injuring four.
Like my daughter at WCU, these kids were simply students intent on preparation for and completion of spring finals.
It was horrifying; it was senseless; and for parents, it was so terrifyingly unpredictable.
We work to keep our children safe and then, as they step toward adulthood, we try to let them find their way. Last Tuesday’s events make us want to snatch them back and hold them close.
My daughter will finish her last final this Wednesday, and then will be back with us for the next couple of months within that wonderful illusion of safety, our home.
Yet come August, we must once again prepare ourselves to send her out into the big wide world again.
Perhaps our best recourse as parents is to try to raise them with the strength, faith and independence needed to withstand all that life throws at them; to remind them that home is always their haven; and to pray without ceasing.
We also should never stop searching — and fighting — for better ways to provide safer schoolyards and campuses for all our children.
It may not be that perfect hedge of safety we dream of, but right now it is a pretty good start.