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It was the last day of school before the holidays, but the kids were still in lessons when I stopped by.

Seven Pakistani Taliban executed 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar on Tuesday, and I thought if I dropped by a school I sometimes pass on my way to work, I might grasp more crisply what had happened. It wasn't the horrific nature of the murders I couldn't comprehend – innocent and promising lives snapped off to dissuade middle-class parents from giving their children an education, a crime that has been condemned all over the world. It's the number I couldn't manage: 132.

I understood Sandy Hook, where 20 grade schoolers died two years ago this month. I understood Marc Lépine (14 women killed, 25 years ago, also pre-Christmas). I could comprehend bigger death counts, like the 2,400 people Barack Obama's drone program is estimated to have killed in the course of five years, or the tens of thousands who fell at the drop of a sword in past religious crusades. But 132 children resisted my grasp.

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Classes had just started when I arrived at the small downtown junior public school. I can't tell you the name for safety reasons, but it has 400 kids, grades one to six. The children who died in Peshawar were between 5 and 17.

I'd forgotten how small young children are: sprogs. They looked like you could wrap them up, two to a package, and give them away as gifts. Like the children in Peshawar, the children in the school near my work in Toronto were middle class, from a wide range of ethnicities. Their names were written in orange Sharpie above their cubbies, the cubbies stuffed with coats and hats and boots and knapsacks and lunchboxes and artwork. The lost-and-found must be an empire of its own.

When news of the Peshawar massacre broke on Tuesday, the school board offered advice to parents and teachers on how to help children deal with the news. "You immediately think of your families, the ones with children in your school, from that part of Pakistan," the principal explained. But the school hadn't had any direct links so far.

You know the way schools look: posters, coloured paper, name tags, endless walls of boots, countless blond wooden doors with plates stamped "Caretaker Storage" and "Elevator Machine Room," poppies made from tissue, portraits of pumpkins hanging across classrooms, signs that say, "Welcome to Room 216!," the alphabet running the perimeter of class. Tables are all the rage these days in the classroom, where teachers practise something called co-learning. "We learn as they learn," the principal explained.

It all seemed very democratic until I heard a teacher say: "Sitting on your bottoms, please."

We took a quick tour. The first classroom had 19 kids, little ones building a gingerbread house; the next had 13; the one after that, 22, plus a list of words and phrases written in chalk on a blackboard: "appreciate," "love," "important," "What I love about my family." A few of the kids wore glasses. I'd forgotten, too, how rare glasses are in school. They still stand out.

In 15 minutes, I saw 114 children. In Peshawar, seven gunmen in paramilitary gear jumped a fence and burst into the school. They started firing and throwing grenades in the hallways, then moved into the auditorium, where they shot children in the head. In classrooms, they shot children as they cowered under their desks. Later, the killers exploded their suicide vests. The entire siege lasted seven and a half hours. This is what happens when an idea becomes more important than a human being.

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In Toronto, each classroom door had a window, and each window had a roll of coloured paper running along its top edge. If a gunman broke into the school, the school would go into lockdown. "We have two lockdown rehearsals a year," the principal said. She locks the front door, the teachers lock their classroom doors and drop the paper shades over the classroom-door windows, and then they all hide, the kids out of sight and lying down. "The rehearsal takes about 10 minutes," the principal said. "It's somewhat alarming to the little kids, so we send a note around to their parents ahead of time."

Before I left, I stepped outside for recess, where 250 children were about to take a 15-minute break. I figured I'd finally have a chance to see what 132 kids looked like.

You hear the noise coming first. They burst through the metal doors, then stopped, pooling in a knot; then they rocketed off across the playground in 250 directions, for the baseball diamond, the perimeter, for tag and soccer and bullying, for a quiet corner to think and watch. It wasn't anything special: just a bunch of kids on the last day of school before the holidays, which is not the worst day of school.

I kept thinking I ought to break down in tears of something, sadness or gratitude, but that didn't happen until later, unexpectedly, as I drove away. In the schoolyard, I just kept trying to count 132 kids, without counting anyone twice. It was harder than you'd imagine: there was a lot of pink and blue, a lot of hats worn low over the eyes, a lot of speeding around. Someone should study all the ways kids run: headlong, daintily, knees high or galumphing, hands open or flat, to cut wind resistance.

It was such a gorgeous sight. They were not running for their lives.

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