Sunday, February 18, 2018

What Teachers Do During A Lockdown When A Gunman Is On The Loose

Whatever the hell they have to. 

There. I said it. 

Sorry for the frankness. 

Pardon the language. 

But not really. Cause that's the truth. 

Whatever. The hell. We have to. 

*All student names have been changed for confidentiality.*

I feed on compliments. It's just my nature. So when multiple people in the building had told me they had no idea I was a first year teacher, it fueled me. I was jumping, dancing, and throwing deuces while rapping our Count To 100 song with my kindergarteners when the announcement came on.

"Teachers we are on lockdown. Clear the hallways."

This was a couple weeks prior to the Florida shooting, and I actually rolled my eyes. Took my sweet time. Turned off the smart board. Shut off the lights.

We did these all the time. We'd only done one lockdown drill last semester and I was pretty sure we were supposed to have at least two, so we were probably just catching up this semester to meet district requirements. I scoffed. We must have been so desperate to get these drills done that they hadn't even bothered to tell the teachers about this one in advance. So I leisurely strolled to the door, reached for the window cover...

And the principals, crisis team, and resource officers came running at full speed down the hallway.

My breath caught in my throat. I fumbled clumsily for my keys but my words came out calm and crisp. "Line up. Now."

My wide eyed five-year-old students sensed the urgency.

"Miss Harper," a little boy whispered, "I don't think we're supposed to go outside."

"We aren't," I reassured him, "and we won't. Michael, lead the line around to the back of the cubby wall."

Scared little Michael straightened his posture and rolled his shoulders backwards. "Yes ma'am," he told me, and the entire line followed suit quietly.

My Apple Watch buzzed. A message from my co-worker Kelly:

Lock your doors and close your windows. Police have been called. 

I grabbed our red emergency bag and ran behind the wall to seat them. "Sit down. Sit down. Sit down. Closer together. Criss cross. Sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. Be quiet. Sit down. You are silent."

My watch buzzed. 2 minutes. An update from Kelly:

Shooting in the neighborhood.

Once they had been huddled behind the wall criss cross, I returned into the classroom to turn off lamps, retrieve rosters, etc. I took roll on the clipboard and returned to my students to wait. But when I rounded the corner, the light touched more than half of my kinders.

No word on whether the gunman had entered the building. But the shooting had happened in the neighborhood, meaning chances were high he was close to the school. Close enough to see in windows.

My stomach dropped. That stupid window. How many times had I put a work order in to fix those blinds? No one had ever come to fix it. But if my students could see the windows...if the light from the window was touching them...then anyone on the other side of the windows could see my students.

How fast could I fix this? What did I have that could cover a window? Some fabric... Dark bulletin board paper... But nothing big enough to cover an eight-foot window. How was I even supposed to reach the top of it without a ladder or causing a big ruckus by pushing tables over? Impossible.

"Ryan. Nathan. Seth. Stand up."

They did.

"Come here," I whispered, and cut a piece of fabric to cover the (smaller) bathroom window. I unlocked the window and put a step stool underneath. "You guys are brave and strong. I need you to hide in here, and if anything happens outside, kneel down as far as you can directly underneath the window. No one will be able to see you. If you hear anything in the classroom, I want you all three to push open the window, and run. Okay?"

They nodded. I was just about to close the door when Ryan whispered, "Miss Harper... What's going on?"

My heart sank. All my fight or flight was wasted in that moment. I chose Ryan to go in because he was always the most lively. The most daring. The fastest on the playground. The strongest punch I had. I knew. I knew because he'd been known to punch people when he defended himself or another student.

And yet, staring back at me were the eyes of a scared little Ryan, huddled in the corner of a 3'x3' bathroom, hugging his knees and blinking back tears from his eyes. And he wanted to know. Miss Harper... What's going on?  

I knelt down quietly. How much was too much for a little one to understand? How much would be necessary for them to understand if someone was in the building?

"Remember how you sometimes play on the playground at recess, Ryan?" I tried, "How there are bad guys and we're the good guys and we have to use our head to catch them because we can't use weapons at school?"

Ryan nodded.

"Well there can be real bad guys in the world. And they don't always just use their heads."

"They have guns?!" little Jackie, a sweet girl from behind me whispered.

"I hope not," I included the rest of the class in the conversation, "but we don't have any guns do we?"

They all shook their heads silently.

"We don't even know if anyone is in here," I whispered to them, "We don't know if they have a gun. We might be doing all of this for nothing. But if there is a bad guy, and he does have a gun... All we have is our head to make decisions, and our feet to run." I turned back to the boys in the bathroom. "So if you hear something inside, punch the window. Get out. And run."

The boys nodded. I glanced at my watch. 8 minutes. No update.

"Olivia. Melissa. Angel. Stand up."

They did.

"Come here."

They did.

"I want you to huddle very close together in this closet."

These were my quietest, most competitive girls. "It is very important that you do not make a sound the entire time you are in here. Not if you hear something. Not if you hear nothing. I want to see which one of you can stay quietest the longest. Okay?"

They nodded. "What happens if we're the quietest?" Olivia, the most competitive asked.

"Shhh," I reminded her, "I'll come back to get you as soon as the lockdown is over, give the quietest a treat." I was pretty sure I had still had some cookie crisp in the back from our subtraction lesson.

They nodded eagerly but fearfully and let me close the door. I locked them inside and hid the closet key in the curriculum case behind my desk. If anyone gunned me down and took my lanyard, they would be unable to get the closet open and the girls would be safe.

"Miss Harper..." a quiet whisper came from Jamie, "I'm about to pee on myself."

I glanced at my watch again. 13 minutes. "I know sweetie, but we can't leave. Can you wait?"

"I think so."

"Okay. Everyone scoot in closer."

I leaned down close. "Sit tight. You're doing great. I'm going to go back out and make sure everything is alright." The children nodded.

I walked back out, farthest away from the cubby wall where my students were hiding, but stayed glued to the wall with the windows in case I might be seen. "Text Dylan," I whispered to my watch. What do you want to say? it flashed back at me. "On lockdown," I whispered again, "Prayer please. Police have been called."

Anything else? my watch asked silently.

"I love you," I added.

Sending now. Can I do anything else? 

"Text my emergency contacts." This would go to my parents, my honorary aunt, and Dylan.

What do you want to say?

"Hey we're all okay," I typed to spare my children the truth, "but someone was shot in the school's neighborhood so we're on lockdown. Prayers would be awesome."

Anything else? my watch asked.


I returned to my students and sat down on the floor with them, criss cross. 16 minutes. And about 15 of them were spent in silent prayer.

"Miss Harper..." another whisper came from behind me. I glanced back to find a little boy trying his absolute best not to cry, "I want to go home."

I refused to lie to these kids. "You know what David?" I whispered back, "Me too. But we are ten times safer here than if we were to get out now to go home. So we have to stay silent okay?"

"But Miss Harper..." little Jamie protested to remind me, "I'm about to pee on myself!"

I put a finger to my mouth. "And you'll be the first to go when this is over. But until then... Silent, okay?"

My students nodded.

23 minutes.

I texted Kelly. "Any word?"

My watch buzzed. "Helicopters are searching."

And it was as if they'd been cued. Either that, or I just hadn't heard the sound before I knew what it was. And thank god, was all I could think, that means the police don't think he's in the building. 

And then... Don't be relieved yet, Bethany. If you can hear the helicopters, they think he's close. 

I peeked around the corner from the cubby wall. One helicopter was circling outside. Two were floating stationary, almost directly above the school. Deep breath. Deep breath. 

"Miss Harper," I heard Kristen, a quiet girl who'd come in late, "I'm getting really hungry..."

I bet. I thought, We've eaten up 12 minutes of our lunchtime. And then it occurred to me that not only were we missing our chance to eat, but Julie had come in the classroom at 8:30, only twenty minutes after the rest of us had eaten breakfast. I teach in an at-risk school and she was on the top-priority list. The girl probably hadn't had anything to eat since lunch the day before.

"I know, sweetie. Just hold on a little longer," I whispered.

"Will we get to eat?!" Michael asked.

"Shhh!" I reminded them, "Yes. Even if I have to go get a box of sack lunches and we eat in here, I'll make sure you get food."

"And then bathroom?" Jamie, the girl in desperate need of a bathroom break asked, "I'm about to pee on myself."

There was a noise in the hallway. My students gasped.

"Shhh!" I said again, as if the reminder was any quieter than the gasping. My arms wrapped around the nearest four students and gripped tightly. No one made a sound. We didn't hear anything else.

I was starting to get light headed. Good god, how long had I been holding my breath? I exhaled quietly.

31 minutes.

I peeked around the corner again. Now there were five helicopters floating and two circling. Sharp shooters hung out the doorways in the sky. I closed my eyes and laid my head back against the wall, out of the view of the window.

"Miss Harper..." Jamie said, "What's going on? I'm about to pee on myself..."

"I know, honey." I hadn't forgotten. She'd probably whispered it twelve times.

"And I'm hungry," Kristen reminded me.

"Me too." "Me too." "Me too." It was as if every kindergartener in that room had suddenly realized they were hungry.

"Listen," I said a little too loudly, and arguably too harshly, "I'm just going to be honest with you guys. Can I talk to you like adults."

They nodded excitedly. That was every kid's dream right? To be treated like an adult?

"This is not a drill," I said frankly. Their smiles vanished. "Someone is out there that we need to hide from. I don't know who. And I don't know where. Usually, our job at this time of day is to go for a bathroom break. And then to lunch. But right now, our job is to stay safe. Do you understand?"

"Yes ma'am..." a chorus of scared little whispers came from the darkness.

"Miss Harper..." a quiet voice came from the back. My head snapped to find it. "I'm so sorry I'm still talking... But are we going to die...?"

The question threw me. Suddenly, I wasn't a teacher in go-mode. I was a social worker. A policeman. And a feeling just shy of motherhood welled up inside me.

I wasn't looking at students anymore. I was looking at quiet, five-year-old boys and girls with tears running down their cheeks, wondering if they woke up that morning for the last time. Five. Years. Old.

I glanced back out to my classroom. Because you forget. The carpet is small. The chairs are small. The tables are small. So the kids themselves don't look that way.

But they are. They are so small.

Their feet still dangle at lunch because they share the same tables with fourth graders.

Their fingers are so small I had to teach them to hold a pencil with fat expo markers on the first day of school.

Their clothes are just now being bought out of the toddler section.

Their shoes can't even fit on my hand.

They are so young. They are so small. And they are so innocent. 

53 minutes.

Way too long for a five year old to sit. To be quiet. To listen up. Way longer than I've ever expected them to.

And all to make sure they got on the bus still breathing that afternoon.

My watched buzzed. A message from Kelly: Gunman taken into custody. 

The intercom buzzed on. It was the loudest thing we'd heard in an hour. We all jumped.

"Students and teachers, thank you for your cooperation. The lockdown has been lifted."

My students jumped up. Chaos erupted. And still, I could not feel relief just yet. There was too much to do. I brought my boys out from the bathroom. I retrieved my key from the curriculum case and unlocked the girls to let them out of the closet. Each of them were given their cookie crisp, as promised. Jamie ran to the bathroom. Kristen became the line leader as we lined up for lunch.

The lunch hour was completely over. We marched down to the cafeteria for a 15 minute lunch; half of what they normally get, but better than nothing. The cafeteria had to make sure everyone got to eat something before dismissal.

The kids were quick to remind me they missed recess also. So we went outside to play for quite a while after that, while my coworkers and I sat on the playground bench filling out head counts, submitting emergency rosters, and returning phone calls to parents who had tried to contact us in the middle of the crisis to make sure their babies were okay.

And after that, it was time for specials. You know, the time where students go to art, P.E., music, etc. for an hour and teachers get their planning time.

I dropped them off at the regular time as if the whole day had been normal.

Then I went back to my classroom and cried for the full 55 remaining minutes.


This is not a post about mental health vs. guns. I'm not saying we need / don't need mental health support. I'm not saying we need / don't need gun control. I'm not saying teachers need guns. I'm not saying they don't. I'm not even saying I have an answer, a solution, or even an idea about how to fix all this madness.

All I'm saying, is that for all of you out there who are leading this debate right now - those of you making laws and enforcing policies and slamming the gavel down to punish the shooters - you have never once sat behind the cubby wall. You have never hid your five year olds in closets. You have never texted your family and boyfriend that you love them, and then walked right back in case you had to lay down your life without saying goodbye to any of them.

You've never done it.

So I'm here to tell you, as someone who has done it... 

If there was more mental health training in my professional development I would've used it.

If there was more social-emotional education in my curriculum I would've taught it.

If I'd had a gun, I would've used it.

If I didn't, I would've used something else.

A baseball bat. My teacher pointer. Maybe a P.E. parachute to strap all my kinders to my body and jump out the window.

I would've used whatever. The hell. I had to. We would not have gone down without a fight. Because if a dedicated lunatic wants to get a gun and shoot up school, they'll find a way to get a gun and shoot up a school - no matter what. So we have to find a way to stay safe and alive.

Fortunately, I didn't have to. It didn't come to that for me.

Unfortunately, for my fellow educators and their kiddos in Florida - they were not so lucky.

So all of you up there in government. In law enforcement. In policy making. All you "so much more important" than teachers. We are paying you to govern. To enforce the law. To make policies.

So please, I don't care what you do. Give me a gun. Don't give me a gun. Update my safety plan. Put more social emotional learning in my daily schedule. Cancel school for a day to give me mental health professional development. Whatever.

Just do something. 

It may not work. And I'm not asking for it to. But the sooner we find out some things that don't work, the sooner we'll find out what will.

We aren't paying you to fix this immediately. That demand is a little high for your salary. But we are paying you to try.

Cause guess what? I'm getting paid to teach. Not to lay down my life. Personally, I feel that demand would be a little high for my salary. Wouldn't you agree?

My family deserves to know that I'll be alive when I come home from school each day. My students' families deserve the same.

Wouldn't you want to be certain your baby's life wouldn't be taken while they were trying to learn and grow into a strong, beautiful person?

Then please. I don't care what. Just try something.