I am a teacher. I truly love instructional films, and books, and kids, and construction paper, and scissors, and glue, and markers, and pens, and imagination and fun and learning and games and creativity and words and growing stronger people. I’m a lover, not a fighter.
And when I decided, age 5, in 1981, that I wanted to do what my kindergarten teachers were doing, make a world where kids could be happy and creative and play, school shootings were not a Thing.
I never practiced a lockdown drill as a child. So it is not like I ever thought, “Despite the danger, I want to work in a school building.” I never, ever considered that being a schoolmarm could be more dangerous than, maybe, getting ink from the overhead projector pens up and down my wrist and arm.
Things have changed since then.
Now, pretty much every day that I walk into the schoolhouse, I think about how this could be the place I die by murder. I spent the tense hours of the Reynolds High School shooting in 2014 getting texts from my best friend who was locked down with her Graphics class three miles down the street from my school where I was in class with a student of mine who was the child of a teacher who was wounded. And then yesterday it got a lot more real.
We had a real honest-to-God shooter-on-campus lockdown yesterday at school for like 30 minutes of real soul-searching, sitting-in-the-dark-on-the-floor-with-17-scared-teenagers, It Just Got Really, Really Real realness. At first, I was sitting there, facing my kids, and whispering to them, “This is really real, I know it. I know it because the principal sent out an email this morning saying that we were having a fire drill on Friday, and never in any school ever have I seen two drills in one month, much less one week.”
So, it got really, really real, really fast. I felt like hugging them all. And I realized how little I know them, really, and yet how much I love them, and how teachers take strangers, year after year, and make them family, and fast. Because I realized that I would literally die for them, and I knew it viscerally, and it only took like 30 seconds for that to sink in. And I knew deep down that I would die trying to save them, if it came to that. I just knew it. I felt it. Like some primal thing.
I thought about how some of them have seen so much trauma already. Almost every single one of my students is from another country. Or, in a few cases, their parents are. And many of their families came here to be SAFER and to have a better life. And I thought about my life, and how sheltered it has been, and how this was literally the closest to looking death in the eye I had ever come. I hope it is the closest I ever, ever come. But I do work in a school building in the United States of America, and I do plan to go back to work, so one never knows if it is the last time. Not nowadays.
After sitting there like looking at the kids for a few minutes, it occurred to me that looking at the kids was not going to be much help if someone really did bust through the classroom door with the intent to harm us. A training we had in Gresham from two police officers came to mind: First option, flee. Second-best option: fight. Fleeing from a second-floor classroom with teensy-tinsey windows did not look like much of an option. So, fight.
So, I turned around and sort of crouched in a Ready to Spring Up position, and watched the door like a hunter. But I felt like the hunted. And then, I began to think, what can I do, with my bare hands? If someone puts an assault weapon through the glass of the door, and a hand comes in to turn the doorknob, what could I do? And then I began to look around the schoolroom. It was a sobering moment, looking around the schoolroom through the lens of What Can I Use in the Way of School Supplies to Defend Myself and My Students?
That’s NOT why I love school supplies. I love them cause they are fun. But it’s school, and what we have around us is school supplies. School supplies and people. That’s pretty much what school is made of. School supplies, people, time, and love.
I silently extracted a pair of scissors from the cup they live in. A student caught my eye. He reached for a stapler. You would not think that in a moment like that, we would find anything funny. But it was so very pathetic, so laughable, that we sort of cracked up a little bit, him with his stapler open and ready to fire, and me with my plastic-handled Wal-Mart scissors. I passed him a pair of scissors. I figured they were slightly more lethal in a fight than a stapler.
We sat and sat, and I breathed deeply and thought, if it my time to go, if it is our time to go, then thank you for this opportunity to have been alive. I had the absurd thought, “At least they died doing what they loved — learning English.” Absurd because (a) why joke about my own potential murder and (b) most of them actually do not like English class.
At least now I know that you can be terrified and your mind will still do its best to amuse you. That is a small comfort.
What also surprised me was how we were not getting any updates. I managed to text my best friend, the one who survived the Reynolds High School shooting, and asked her to look into it for me. She called District Office. No one was there to answer her call. I would have thought that there was a red phone down there, some kind of Information Central to send teachers updates as we cower with our students, wondering if the sirens we hear are coming to our school. (They were.)
After the lockdown lifted, we spent a few minutes just sitting. Processing. I was afraid to talk to the class. I did not know what to say. I wanted to say, “I love you all, so much.” I wanted to say, “I am sorry that the adults have not fixed this problem of you not feeling safe.” I wanted to say to them, “I know life feels a little fake most of the time, and I know that there is not a lot in school that feels real, and meaningful, and true, and important. But we are here, and we are here for a reason, and let’s find that reason, not in worksheets and video clips and books, but in each other’s faces, in our hearts and in what is possible in a group that knows that they are together for a reason.” I wanted to say a bunch of things. But I knew I would cry too much. So, I just said, “I was so scared, you guys. Weren’t you? Let’s take a few, to calm back down.” And then after a few minutes, mostly spent staring into their phones, I told them that I had once heard that the best thing to do after a shakeup was to get back to business, so we just picked up our reading on Bob Marley and kept on keepin’ on.
Then, after school, I went home and I cried for a couple hours. I wondered, as I blew and re-blew my nose, as the waves of tears came and went, I wondered if any of the students were also processing their fear and their feelings at their homes.
I thought, for the first time ever, that this culture of fear in schools, this epidemic of school shootings, has more victims than just the people – the far, far too many people – who are murdered or commit suicide in America’s schoolhouses, or survive active shooter situations. Kids all over, every single day I bet, all around us, go home after having had to hunker down with their class, as a precautionary measure, not knowing what was happening outside their locked classroom door, wondering how, with just school supplies and time and people and love to protect us, what would happen if that door opened. Straining their ears to hear: Is someone screaming down the hall? Are those sirens for us? Are they police…or ambulance?
I do not know what to do with all these feelings and new thoughts. But I do know now, in a much more real way than before, that it is deeply traumatizing to this entire generation to grow up experiencing lockdown drills, lockdowns, shootings, massacres, and this culture of fear, this pervasive feeling of threat. Not many grownups KNOW. But school employees do. Teachers know. So, what ARE we going to do about it, Grownups Who Know? Maybe the first step is telling our stories, and helping our kids tell theirs. Can you imagine seeing something as commonplace as a lockdown drill through the eyes of a five-year-old who does not speak English? Maybe that is the first step.
I am a teacher. I love books. I love writing and I love creating things. And I love kids. And I am not so naive as to think that we can write our way out of this mess. But I do believe that there is a healing power in writing, and that sharing our stories can change the world. In fact, stories might just be the only thing that do change the world.
Hang in there, everyone. And hold on tight to each other.