A bridge, a field trip, and a dilemma

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When California Gov. Gray Davis announced the heightened terror alert for Nov. 2 through 7 on the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and other California bridges, I immediately called my husband to see if he had business in San Francisco that week.

It never occurred to me to check my 7-year-old's calendar. I'd forgotten that Danny and the other second-graders at his school were scheduled to tour the a teddy-bear factory, a field trip that requires crossing the Bay Bridge. Two classes were going on the Nov. 6, two on Nov. 7, and two, including Danny's, were going on Nov. 8

When parents raised concerns about the timing of the trip, school administrators initially counseled the teachers to go ahead with it. Like many government officials, their line was "business as usual."

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No parenting book that I know about has a chapter titled, "What to do when a terror alert conflicts with a school field trip." So, I put the issue to the front lines: I e-mailed a number of other mothers I know. Some were from the East Coast, some from the West, and others from states in between.

"Should the field trip be canceled?" I asked, adding, "If it isn't, what would you do? Would you let your child go? Do you think one day after the Nov. 2-7 window is enough?"

For some, the issue was black and white. It was "go or terrorists win" versus "no way would I send my child."

Others understood the murkiness of the issue. Ignoring a general threat was one thing, tempting a child's fate when a specific target was announced, another.

The Nov. 8 date for Danny's tour didn't solve the problem. No one said the risk became a nonevent at the stroke of midnight on Nov. 7.

Many longed for control where there was none.

One mother e-mailed back: "Sometimes I try to deal with the potential threat the way I coped with earthquakes when we lived in California - do the basic things, like have provisions on hand, then push it to the back of my mind in a fatalistic kind of way."

Another mother admitted that she now keeps her running shoes in her car trunk, along with scooters for her daughters.

Others saw safety decisions as personal. "Trust your instincts," they said. Feeling safe was considered to be as important as the reality of any threat to these moms. If you're uneasy, they felt, don't send your son.

One mother, also the grandmother of a newborn, likened the situation to the polio epidemic of her childhood. At the time, parents were told to keep children away from crowds.

"That meant that we couldn't go to the Ringling Brothers circus, which was in town," she wrote. "We were terribly disappointed. But I still remember feeling safe and secure that my parents were wise and strong enough to make hard decisions to protect us."

Then I received an e-mail that felt like a slap of reality. This mother didn't have the luxury of my teddy-bear dilemma.

"I live in the D.C. area," her e-mail began. "My kids go to school across the street from the CIA. Relatives and friends work on Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court, the State Department. My husband opens mail processed by the Brentwood mail facility. Life has to go on."

I reread the e-mail several times. I also thought of the time my father sliced his hand unclogging a snow blower. My mother rushed him to the emergency room. For hours, incoming patients upstaged Dad's wound.

Then, resting on a gurney behind a thin white curtain, Dad overheard two nurses ranking patients for triage. Once again, he hadn't made the top five.

"What about the hand?" one nurse asked.

"The hand is nothing," responded the other.

According to Mom, my father raised himself up on the gurney, winced in pain, and called out, "The hand is not nothing."

Suddenly, I knew what to do about the field trip. I told Danny he wasn't going.

"But I want to go," he said, his eyes welling with tears.

For a moment, we were both silent.

Then I asked him, "What's Mom's No. 1 job?"

It's the question I've asked my three kids since my oldest son was a toddler, the question I ask to get them to hold hands in busy parking lots even now, years after they think they've outgrown the need.

"To keep me safe," answered Danny.

"I know you want to go on the field trip," I said. "But I have to do my job."

Even if, I thought to myself, I'm not always sure how.

- Robin Schoettler Fox lives with her husband and three sons in Lafayette, Calif.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to home@csps.com.

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