This is not the most cheerful of topics, but I recently had a scare and it made me think about what steps we take to be safe on a daily basis and how I can/should teach my daughter about being brave but careful in a world that is not always a safe place.
The two of us were home alone one night. My daughter was in her room sleeping and I was poring over some documents related to yet another committee task, when I heard a strange sound from the back of the house. I could think of various reasonable explanations for the sound, so I ignored it for a while, but eventually, as the sound continued, I got curious and looked out an upstairs window that overlooks the back of the house.
A large man I had never seen before was hurling himself again and again at the back porch door. The door was locked, but a large part of the door is comprised of glass.
I called 911 and the operator and the police responded rapidly. The operator insisted on keeping me on the line until the police came, and she kept talking to me as the man continued to hurl himself against the door. I provided a description of him; first question: race; second question: clothing; third question: age; fourth question: height. The police came quickly, confronted and restrained the man, asked me whether I had ever seen him before (I had not), and took him away.
It turns out that my daughter had awakened and heard my urgent conversation with the 911 operator and heard the man slamming himself into the door. She stayed in her room, calmly waiting for me to come and tell her what was going on. When I went to check on her and found her awake, we talked about what had happened, and she was more curious about it than scared or anxious.
I am glad that she was not terrified or upset, but I also want her to understand the importance of taking basic steps to be safe. Ideally, these basic steps will be minimally intrusive in our lives, but nevertheless effective. Locking doors and windows is a basic step that doesn't interfere with most people's daily lives too much, but what beyond that should we do to be safe in routine situations?
In 2007, I wrote about how the campus police told me I should keep my office door closed at all times, even during the day, but I have ignored this advice. During the day, my door is open most of the time that I am in my office. If I work in my office at night, however, I close the door, even if the building is supposed to be locked.
In fact, the building doors are not always locked when they are supposed to be. There used to be a problem of students leaving the door propped open for friends, but this problem has entirely disappeared owing to the ubiquity of cell phones and ease of communication. Now if the door is unlocked when it is not supposed to be, it is a mistake by the people who are supposed to lock the doors at a particular time. There is a phone number one can supposedly call and report problems such as this, but I have never found it to be a particularly effective or rewarding experience to call this number late at night.
Working late at the office requires walking through campus at night. I could call for a security escort to walk with me, but I never do. My main reason for not taking advantage of this option is that I do not want the inconvenience of calling and waiting for someone to come to my building, but I suppose another reason involves my somewhat delusional reluctance to believe that my immediate environs are so unsafe that I can't walk alone across a well-lighted area of campus alone at night.
Perhaps I am making the wrong decisions about my personal security. Perhaps I should sit in my office with the door closed at all times until someone knocks and identifies themselves to my satisfaction. Perhaps I should install a webcam and/or retina scanner to screen visitors, including the department chair.
Or maybe it's OK to have my office door open during the day, but I shouldn't work in my office at night and/or walk alone on campus at night.
Or maybe it's (mostly) OK to walk alone on campus at night as long as I stay in well lighted areas and keep my phone on and at hand (as I do).
Or not. Random scary things can happen, even in one's own home. Even so, I don't want to live in fear, and I don't want my daughter to be fearful either. It's just a matter of finding the right amount of caution to take in our daily lives. It seems, however, that the right amount may only be right until something happens.
10 months ago