There’s a tannoy system at my school in DC. And that intercom has become the bane of my life: I swear, most of the whole-school messages could have been directed just to one classroom’s tannoy, or sent via email. It’s the spring of 2013. It’s been irritating me for years. Perhaps it will be silent for just a few hours. But, nope. Interrupt me again, why don’t you?
It bleeps. I only half pay attention. I’m trying to teach multiplication tables to not-overly enthused eight year olds. Leave me alone. Lockdown. Lockdown. LOCKDOWN. Lockdown? OK, you have my attention now. Our attention.
My assistant, a patient, intelligent young woman, still in college, starts ushering the class into the closet. I run to the classroom door, peering out. The boys’ restroom is across the hall. Coming out of it are three boys in the grade above. O. E. I: as always, they’re a trio of trouble. I taught them last year. They exasperated me, but I loved their energy. They’re messing about and giggling in the hallway. Harshly, I whisper-yell and gesture them into my room. I nudge them towards the closet. They’re scared that I’m ‘cross’, that they’re going to miss a recess time again. They’re apologizing for silliness, bickering over who was throwing wet paper towels. I don’t see the moment they realise this is bigger than that. But, I hear it. I hear the fear as they fall silent. I don’t see it, because I’m back at the classroom door. I’m locking it. Feeling grateful that I have one of the few classrooms whose door locks from the inside. Ruing that I have one of the few classrooms with windows in the door, but without blinds.
I can’t see the kids because I am grabbing the relevant card from the notice board by my door. I grab green. And, in a split second, change it to orange. I slide it under the door. Yes, we’re green, I have a full class, we’re safe. We have no injuries. We’re not red. But, I have excess kids. That orange is meant to signal to the police some basic math. It can match up with the teacher next door. She has kids missing, but it’s ok. Ms. A. has them. Suddenly, I realise how unclear that is. What if she’s missing four, and I just have three? What if there are still kids in the restroom? Stuck out in the hall? Literally sitting targets? But, I can’t open the door. I have to protect my babies.
I flip off the lights. Noting to see. No one here, honest. I go back to the closet. My teacher’s aide has successfully crammed the kids all in. I’ve been grateful for her calm competence every day of this long academic year. But, I didn’t know until now that I could feel this overwhelming level of gratitude for her. That there’s an ‘us’. I refuse to think about how often I am the sole adult in the classroom. Or she is. She’s lifted them onto shelves, stacked them on top of each other. We use the closet as a cloakroom. There are backpacks, and discarded homework sheets, and raincoats. And my 26 second-graders. And three boys from the Third Grade. Twenty-nine little people cowering for their lives. Will they each make it to their ninth birthdays? Will we do the science experiment we had planned for the afternoon? Would this be it?
There’s no room for me. I don’t care. Whether I make it out of here alive is irrelevant. I’m not special: I’m a teacher. But, I know I need to put my body between anyone who wants to harm my babies, and their precious, precious little faces. I need to be in the way. There’s no door to this closet. I am the door. And, if I am in the classroom rather than the closet, I can be seen from the hallway. My room is all windows, and the spring light keeps no secrets. I could make us a target. So, I squeeze my way in. It’s uncomfortable. Unpleasant. We’re silent. More silent than I have ever heard these kids be. More silent that I ever want to hear them be again.
I know I have done the only thing that might just, if we’re lucky, keep us safe. Keep them safe. We’re on the second floor, there’s no way out, and nowhere else to hide. But, I am painfully aware I have loaded them all into one space. The phrase ‘like shooting fish in a barrel’ comes to mind. I wish it hadn’t. The closet is dim, but I catch my aide’s eye. The children’s faces in the half-light show fear. I need to reassure myself with a final roll-call. I add on O, E, and I. I whisper the register. They whisper back, they’re here, they’re ok. Ms. A. You’ve got this. You’ve got us.
This is a drill. I know it’s a drill. My students know it is a drill. But, they believe in the tooth fairy, in Santa and flying reindeer, that ‘crap’ is the worst c word out there. They believe that life is fair and people are good. In their stories, their usual chatter that brightens up our room, they mix up fantasy and reality each and every day. Their individual imaginations and innocence have been entrusted to me. And now I am showing them that part of reality is that someone might choose to come into your very safe place, where you should be happiest, and hunt you down. Kill you. The drill is all too necessary. I fear it is molding their little brains for the worse.
My classroom door rattles. I cease to think or even fear. All 31 of us collectively hold our breath. I hear my principal’s voice. Drill over. Safety. Come out. I know if this had been real, you would have needed to drag me away from that archway. I am their door. Their protector. I’m being asked to unlock the classroom door. I focus on what I would do if this were real. Playing pretend with kids is meant to be fun. Deep breath. This isn’t real. Yet. We’re lucky for now. I open the door.
This was a drill. The kids stream out. I praise their sensibleness. I check in specially with A, whose severe anxiety and developmental needs are making his school life hard enough already. How he’s coping, I have no idea. The students get a drink of water. My assistant takes them to an extra recess. I breathe.
As staff, we do a debrief. I raise my concerns about the numbers and colours system. Won’t the coloured cards in the hallway tell a shooter that classrooms have kids in? Some staff mention the lack of blinds. Other teachers question the lack of locks. I reflect that being able to hide in classrooms is counter to all my child protection training. I need to also protect these kids from abuse, and the changes we’ll make to our building will contradict abuse protocols. Dammit. We discuss how useful the tannoy actually is. Internally, I roll my eyes. Yeah, it’s probably externally too.
The team are thoughtful, helpful. Professional. We talk about why this drill seems so painful. We do fire drills. We do earthquake drills. We do tornado drills. We even evacuated last summer because of a gas leak across the street. But, those are passive. The bad thing might happen. You leave, or you go to a safe place. But not this. This is active. The literal bogey man is hunting you down. Lockdown drill is just a polite way of saying ‘active shooter drill’ after all.
We discuss that we don’t know how to be sure we aren’t raising a shooter of the future. All these armed youths were tiny little people in Kindergarten themselves, once upon a time. We shelve that discussion for another day. Goodness knows no-one needs me to rant, again, about the dearth of special needs and mental healthcare funding in this country. Sometimes, I am so very, very European. Seeing as how I got lost somewhere past the Atlantic, I am constantly appreciative for the guidance and support of my multi-national team. I love these colleagues almost as much as I love my little ones. Days like today, we’re not co-workers, we’re friends.
My class return. I smile. And we sit down to talk about it. I had prepared them for this drill, although, now I know, not well enough. They hadn’t understood my words. But, then we put it into action. Now they understand. We talk about it all. Half of them have an awareness of school shootings from the news. Half don’t. All of them are frightened. I praise their calmness. Reassure them I will always do everything I can to keep them safe. Remind them that it’s ok if they end up in another classroom during a drill. Reiterate my personal teaching mantra: first safety, then happiness, then learning. I give them the space to articulate their thoughts and fears.
Jax is mentioned. It is brought to my attention that we have these plans to keep teachers and children safe, but nothing for Jax, our class hamster. I’m in no way prepared for this question. I don’t want to answer with my honest thoughts. I placate them: Jax is safe in his house, and when he’s out in his ball he likes to run into the closet anyway. He loves to pee on the floor there, when we can’t see him to stop him. We laugh. Jax knows there’s paper to nibble on in the closet, so he always ends up causing trouble in there. I’ve done it. I’ve side-stepped the question.
Then I am reminded by K, a sweet, thoughtful girl, that, whenever Jax is out in his ball, we shut our classroom door and put up a sign, asking visitors to be keep it shut and be careful. I am asked: what if a bad man comes into our classroom to hurt us, but he leaves the classroom door open, and Jax rolls out into the hallway? Ms. A., Ms. A., you said the hallway is dangerous for Jax, because he might fall down the stairs. Ms. A.?
I cannot answer honestly. I’m trying to explain mass murder to eight year olds and they care most about the critter. It’s what they understand. Nothing in my training has readied me for this. J puts up her hand. J is polite and helpful, with a cracking sense of humour. J is one of the best readers in the grade. Of course, that’s helped by her being one of only a few native English speakers. But, it’s more than that. She’s bright as a button, and makes connections between ideas easily. I hope to vote for her as President one day. J raises her hand and does what I can’t. She answers honestly. “I don’t think the hamster matters as much as us, not if someone is trying to shoot us dead.”
I know immediately that J’s words will be burned onto my brain forever. Because she was right. And because kids in elementary school shouldn’t need to comprehend that kind of logic. I keep breathing. The day ends. Parents are informed about the drill. Given information about how to talk to their kids about it. We reassure the kids, the parents, each other, that school shootings are still rare. It won’t happen here. It can happen here. But it won’t. We hope.
I do my paperwork. I plan. I prepare for the science experiment we postponed. I grade work. I clean out the damned hamster’s cage. I pick up the papers strewn on the cloakroom floor. I write tomorrow’s date on the whiteboard. I am ready for another day. I am grateful it is a day we will all get to see together.
I thank my colleagues, my friends, for everything. I have no words to describe their dedication and talents. Not today. Not any day. I’m glad there will be more days for me to, at least, try.
I go home. And I weep. I weep because I wrecked kids’ innocence today. I weep because I am helpless. I weep because I remember there are kids who didn’t lose just their innocence crammed into a school closet, but who lost their lives. I weep because I know I’m not planning to stay in this country, because I want out of the insanity, but that doesn’t end it. I weep because I don’t understand the way most people are reacting to school shootings, and I have never felt so foreign and alien. I weep because this is meant to be the place people dream of living, and yet awful days like this are simply routine. I weep because I know that this day will be one I can never forget.
But mostly, I weep because whilst my school and I are doing everything we can to protect my babies if the worst happens, those in power aren’t. I weep because I understand it would be better if we didn’t need to protect them. If there weren’t shootings and shooters to protect them from. I weep because, when I turn on the news, no one seems to be aiming for that.
I cry myself to sleep. I get up. I walk the short journey from my apartment to school. I look down the hill and see the the White House. As I arrive at school, I smile at my team. I feed the hamster. I greet my students. Most of them turn in homework. When the intercom, inevitably, bleeps a pointless announcement, I feel less ire. We do the science experiment. Life, happily, goes on.
A few months later, I hand the kids (and lovely, fluffy Jax) over to a new teacher. She seems amazing. It’s a bittersweet day. I get on a plane an start afresh. I start teaching in a country that doesn’t have school shootings. Where kids don’t have to know what lockdown drills are. Where, even though I don’t speak the language, I don’t feel alien.
But, I can’t move on. I still weep. Because every-time the news says ‘American school shooting’, I hold my breath and beg. Please, not my kids. Please. And I flashback to that spring afternoon in the closet. What if someone is trying to hurt my babies, and I’m not there to be the door, the barrier?
I weep because I know, statistically this is so unlikely, and that I am over-reacting. I weep because I wish the American government would over-react. I weep because I wish they would react. I weep.
Jen Abergel is a teacher living and working abroad. This blog is adapted from a post first published on Facebook, available here