In my first year of teaching, the anonymous pen behind Love, Teach basically kept me alive. Despite knowing nothing about her, I felt deeply connected to her. Her struggles were my struggles; her triumphs my triumphs. I loved reading about her ridiculous students, bizarre workplace issues, and fatigue-induced moments of insanity. Then, a few weeks ago, she published a post titled Why Don’t I Matter to You, Congress?: A Plea from a Teacher. In it, she discusses Congress’s nonexistent action to protect our nation’s children and teachers from gun violence. And in it, I once again found that she and I were of a mind.
Two years ago, someone came through the school and put large printed numbers on the inside of the windows, facing out. 110, 112, 114.
This is so that when police come, they can communicate about which room the shooter is in from the outside.
Twice a year, our school is required to complete a “Code Red” drill. The last time we had a Code Red drill, the students did everything according to plan. The ones closest to the windows pulled down the shades. All the rest rose calmly from their seats, walked to the corner farthest from the door and windows, and huddled in a nook between the wall and a filing cabinet.
I stepped into the hallway, scanned for kids to shepherd into my room, then locked my door and turned out the lights. I joined my students in the corner, crouched between them and the door, willing them into silence with stern looks. We breathed, and stilled.
We practiced waiting, trembling in the dark, for someone to shoot us.
I am fierce in defense of my students. Once, on a field trip, an adult not related to our trip screamed at a group of my kids for being too loud in a public bathroom. Before I even knew what I was doing, I found myself between this man and my students, forcing him to engage me, to talk to me, and herding him away. Although I did not touch him in any way, I felt the muscles of my body tense, ready to spring if he made so much as a movement towards my children.
When we practice waiting to be shot underneath our autumn leaf displays, next to our hopes and dreams for the school year, I rehearse how I will die for my students. I will rise throwing a chair, then dive for the shooter’s legs. I will raise my hands, pleading, to draw his attention away from them. I will tell him my name, tell him about my family in an attempt to appeal to his conscience. I will stand between him and my children, though of course bullets fired at the distance from my door to the corner will easily pass through me and into them.
Three weeks ago, one of my students came up to me. “What if there’s a person trying to attack us in the building?” she asked.
Nine-year-olds are masters of the non-sequitur what-if, so I am used to brushing these questions aside. I almost told her that there wasn’t, and not to worry about it, when I looked down at her face. Her eyes were red.
I crouched beside her. “There isn’t anyone trying to attack us,” I told her. “Sometimes people have things wrong with their brains, and that makes them violent. If that happens near us, it’s my job to keep you safe. That is the part of my job I take most seriously. I will keep you safe. Every teacher in this building has that same job. You are safe here.”
She started crying. “But what if something happens? What if I’m in the bathroom or getting a drink? What if there isn’t a teacher?”
And so I found myself telling this child, over and over, that she was safe, that all teachers would check to make sure children were in locked classrooms, that she would never be left alone to face someone who intended to kill her.
Even a few years ago, I would have told her that no one would attempt to kill her. I can’t do that anymore. As of October 1, there had been 45 school shootings this year in the United States. As of that same date, 274 days into the year, 295 mass shootings had claimed 380 lives and injured over 1,000 more. After reassuring my student, I found myself nearly in tears as well, wondering why, in the US in 2015, I can’t tell a child with reasonable certainty that no one will try to kill her.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. I’m not an expert on mental health or gun regulation or security. I’m a teacher.
I do know I want to live in a world where children don’t have to practice, twice a year, their voices and bodies silent, waiting for someone to kill them. And so I appeal to the humanity of those in power. Please. Let us begin again to raise children who are safe each day as they arrive to learn.