I just finished a pre-K teacher’s article about lockdown drills (“Rehearsing for Death,” Launa Hall, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/rehearsing-for-death-a-pre-k-teacher-on-the-trouble-with-lockdown-drills/2014/10/28/4ab456ea-5eb2-11e4-9f3a-7e28799e0549_story.html). She wrote on choosing her words carefully to communicate the import yet not terrify her tiny students, students we hope still retain a shred of innocence. Hall focuses on her diction when talking to her students, using “activity” and not “game” to convey a more serious tone. Not saying “police” because “some little kids find police officers scary, and I can’t risk introducing tears.” She also doesn’t use “quiet” for fear students will “shush” each other. She doesn’t need quiet for these drills; she needs silence: “As silent as children who aren’t there at all.” She then recounts an atypical lockdown drill. She discusses the importance of body language and following protocol. She paints a vivid picture of cramming “16 tiny bodies” and two adults into a closet. She ends with a powerful couple paragraphs about lockdown drills focusing on the wrong issue: “It’s time to stop rehearsing our deaths and start screaming” about gun control.
Of course as I read the article, I vividly imagined the tiny babies crammed into a closet and silently awaiting a potential shooter, but as a teacher of 11+ years, I also thought of my own large babies—and how my classes run 20-32 students.
I have taught 8th-12th grade and participated in many, many drills: tornado, fire, lockdown. I have learned protocols and code words for three different schools. I have learned to walk into my classroom each year (and I’ve have many different rooms) and immediately mentally assess furniture placement and how that will affect my students during drills—and where I can pack their bodies.
For fire drills, we simply try to file out the nearest door and congregate in one place so I can insure they all make it out. In two of my schools, I was almost always the last one out so I could sweep the bathrooms and watch for stragglers.
And, I silently and selfishly pray I’ll never actually have to be the last one out in a real fire. I think of my own family dependent on me. I also think of the new limitations lupus has placed on my physical abilities.
For tornado drills, I watch my large athletes sitting with their backs to me as they ludicrously try to make themselves too small for a tornado to swallow them whole. I make eye contact with my fellow teachers as we stand and pace the halls to ensure our students have assumed the position. We also try to maintain order and quiet in the midst of teens who are weary of the drills, who are bored of the routine, and who make jokes to hide the fact they know tornados are a reality in our state. As I look at my comrades in arms, we all silently acknowledge our standing and pacing puts us at the most risk—we also know our hallways are not truly safe. I personally know my 5’5”, 119 lb frame would never be able to shield all my children. Most of them outweigh me and are taller than I. Sure, I can separate them when they fight (many times just by raising my voice), but how do I save them from a force of nature?
And again, I silently and selfishly pray I’ll never actually have to throw myself over them in a tornado. I think of my own family and my physical limitations. I recognize my mental toughness but my physical weakness.
For lockdown drills, the reality is even more sobering. I have had at least three rooms with an entire wall of external windows (one the 1st floor; one on the second, with a building of equal height within shooting distance and facing my room; one on the 3rd floor). I have had to coldly calculate how many students could fit under and behind my desk and how many could fit behind a barricade of student desks. I have had to look at my students and logically plan how to pack them into a corner for maximum protection. I have had to ruthlessly threaten them for making noise and not taking this seriously. I know teens tend to have an invincibility complex, but I have read books (fiction and nonfiction) about shootings. I know way too many real-life examples. The names of towns and schools run through my mind as I coldly tell my students to stay down and stay quiet. I’m good in crises (so far), but I also shut down emotion. I cannot spare feelings when I have to ponder if I would actually throw myself in front of my students and face down a shooter. Would I really die for these children? I do love them, but what about my own family? What about my own life?
Finally, I silently and selfishly pray I’ll never actually have to stare down the barrel of a gun and choose between my life and my students’. I remember my family and my physical limitations. I feel gutless and cowardly for not delusionally and perkily stating I would lay down my body and life for my students. I’m too much a calculated realist.
I love teaching; I’ve said that many times. But, while I figuratively kill myself making sure my students are prepared for their futures, making sure they leave my class with more knowledge and maybe more wisdom and empathy, I don’t think I should have to entertain the scenario of laying down my life for them. Why should I have to weigh the value of their lives over my own child’s—and my life? I don’t want to be a hero. I simply want to teach.
Honestly, I have no idea how I would react in any of these situations. I am only human, and too many factors keep me from knowing I’d be a hero. I am only a teacher, which is everything and nothing.