“Mr. Greene, please come to the office.”
The announcement was made by my principal, quickly, efficiently. Her tone was commanding, a little stern, devoid of the warmth that we usually hear in it. I imagined, for a fleeting moment, the chorus of “ooohs” that would most likely be said or implied by the students who heard it–clearly, Mr. Greene was in trouuuuuuble.
Except not. Because there wasn’t, as we teachers knew, a Mr. Greene. The name of our school was Greene Elementary. Our school was on lockdown: that was how she told us.
I had just brought Charles to my office, because his IEP was scheduled for tomorrow and I still needed baseline data for a couple of the goals. My office is also the second floor staff bathroom: I usually don’t lock it. I just recently got a key.
I had closed the door behind me, because Charles is probably the most distractible kid I’ve ever worked with: every flash of movement attracts his mind and eye. He startled when the announcement was made, looking up from the writing of his name on his paper. “Keep going”, I told him, and I went to the door.
Opened it a crack. The fifth grade teacher was standing at the door two doors down from me. “Is this a drill?” She looked at me, pushed the door closed, shook her head. It wasn’t her door: she taught on the other side of the hallway. I realized later that she’d had the presence of mind, during the announcement, to realize that this class had a substitute teacher–she’d gone to her absent colleague’s class to make sure they did it right.
Not a drill. Okay then. I locked my door, for only the second time in this calendar year. The first time was when Finn had abused his office privileges during a tantrum–whenever possible, I arrange the environment to deliver my consequences, so the next day, he discovered that the door wouldn’t open until Restitution was Complete.
Finn, I knew, was next door, with the classroom teacher and the paraprofessional and all the rest of his class. Experiencing, alas, another environmental consequence. I made a mental note to text his paraprofessional as soon as I could, to let her know that a one-time exception to the ban on Diary of a Wimpy Kid in class could be made. One behavior we were still working on was running out of the classroom: I didn’t know how else to make sure it wouldn’t happen now.
Locked door to my office. On one side of it, the hallway, the other classrooms, and whatever the reason for the lockdown might be. On my side of it, Charles, looking up at me, and asking, “Who’s Mr. Greene?” Charles, just-turned-seven, all floppy, splayed arms and untidy sandy hair, kicking his feet out and rocking his body, a fat pencil held incorrectly in his hand.
“Someone the principal called for. Let’s focus on the work.”
I finish the math assessment, my brain moving in many directions at once, texting under the table as I read each question aloud. How many shirts does Sarah have? Please check on Yosef, too. He gets anxious when things happen that he doesn’t understand. Which vegetable is there more of? (A text comes in from another para–the door doesn’t lock. I’m holding it with my body . I respond: thank you. I’m sure it’s ultimately nothing, but keep doing that.) How would you make the tally marks for that many pets?
Intermittently, noises in the hallway. Every now and again, a pull on my door. I later learn that the first pull was my principal, making sure that everyone secured everything. The other ones may have been students, or the custodian, or one of the school visitors we’d known about and approved. I don’t know. Minutes tick by. Charles finishes the assessment. It’s time for lunch. We can’t leave. I pull out random busy work, get data I don’t need from him. Think bitterly to myself, I’d better live through this, because for once, man, my work samples are absolutely AIRTIGHT.
In the forefront, for Charles, goldfish crackers and spelling games. In the back of my mind, the questions. What’s happening? What’s that sound? Why isn’t there an all-clear? I haven’t done this before, I don’t know if I should be as worried as I am. I over-react, internally, and I register that I’m over-reacting, talk myself towards and off a ledge again and again. It’s nothing. Lockdowns happen. But then the question–is that what they thought at the schools where there were shootings? I look at my phone: no-one from outside has called or texted me. Wouldn’t people know, if something was real?
“Charles, I’m going to turn the radio on, just for a moment.” I have it tuned to NPR, because I listen to it before and after the kids come–I know it’s not appropriate for seven-year-olds, usually, but I figure I’ll switch it on, this time, just to see.
The broadcaster’s voice, reporting a story. “They were not moving away from the people who assaulted her.” Click. Close enough. The past tense tells me nothing’s being reported in this moment that concerns us; the subject matter is clearly such that I can’t leave it on.
Charles startles again at the sound of the click. “Why’d you turn it off?”
“Well, I turned it on because I wasn’t sure if they might be about to say something we needed to hear, but they aren’t, so I turned it off.”
“Why were they not talking about the things they were gonna say?” Charles trips on his language sometimes, when he doesn’t understand something–he has a grain of a question, but it gets buried too easily. I smile at him, give him more goldfish, try to gently push his non-question aside.
“There’s nothing on the radio. We don’t need to listen to it.”
He persists, just for a moment. “You thought there was gonna be a…”
I let that hang. I don’t want to answer it. I thought, honestly, that maybe there was gonna be an alert, like there was a flash-flood alert in the middle of Weekend Edition two days ago, letting us know that we needed to watch out for rising waters until 10:15. I was so baffled by the specificity of that, I guess, that it stuck with me, and an irrational part of me thought, perhaps, that an equally limited time frame could be announced here. “A local elementary school is in peril, until 12.”
I don’t tell Charles what I thought: it doesn’t make sense even to me. “What did you think, my friend? What do you think they’d say?”
He furrows his brow. “Maybe…maybe they met Mr. Greene!”
I can’t stop myself: “Charles, what do you think that means?” I know as I say this that I can’t tell him the truth.
“It means…it means…” He chews his goldfish thoughtfully for a moment, then loses interest. The bar graph he’d been working on catches his eye. “1, 2, 3…That’s easy to write!”
“Go back and write it, then, Charles. That’s a smart idea.” A rattle at the door again. I text the principal, let her know that this is happening and I don’t know what to do. Is it a child? Should I let him in? A couple minutes pass, the response comes back. Do not open door. Charles is relating an anecdote about his new occupational therapy sessions: he gets excited and raises his voice. I ask him to be quieter, and he asks me, why? I lie to him about a headache that I don’t actually have.
I won’t open the door, even though I imagine a child on the other side, even though I am terrified that the child is in danger. I test Charles’ decoding skills, give him more goldfish, text back and forth with the para who supports Yosef and Finn. They’re doing fine. Thank you. The speech therapist sends me a message from his other site, letting me know he’s updated Charles’ goals on the online IEP. I ask him to do what I stopped myself from asking a friend to do for me: can you turn on your radio and tell me if you hear anything? He is properly unruffled, joking around. His other school is in the flatlands: this happens all the time there. I suddenly process what that means to me. There is a place where this is common. There is a place, many places, where this no longer scares anyone. Should that comfort me, or should that make me feel even worse?
Ten more minutes pass. Twenty. I give up on assessing Charles, give him carte blanche to play with the toys. After 50 full minutes, the all-clear is given. The entire school eats lunch at once; it is amazingly not chaotic. Information surfaces in dribbles and drabs: the police were in the neighborhood, trying to apprehend a man they believed to be armed. Our school had not been entered, was not entered, nobody at our school was in any kind of danger, but the police had contacted the office, asking us to do exactly what we did.
It is so easy, after the fact, to shrug it off and keep going. For most of the kids, it was as if nothing had happened–because the teachers made it seem like nothing was happening. An extra long math lesson, bonus time to silent read. When I visited Charles’ first grade class after the lockdown, I saw that the teacher had pulled down the United States map. An impromptu fifty-minute geography lesson: whoops, that was so interesting, I forgot to take you all to lunch.
Most of the adults, also, were more nonchalant than I was: I freely admit that a goodly portion of the Teacher Beth brain is devoted to the category of Worst Case Scenario. It happens, I guess, when having an incredibly rare disease as a child leads you to an adult career working with the least typical kids possible: it’s hard to trust in the safety of statistics when this is the way you see things shake out. And then there’s the reality that this was my first lockdown: you never really know what it’s like until it happens.
I imagine that, should I experience it three or four or several dozen times, the lockdown procedure will become old hat to me. I’ll stop imagining horrible things happening, and concentrate fully on the task that’s at hand. After this one, I practically forced Charles’ teacher to give me the whole class so she could have her lunch break–my mind quiets, somehow, when I’m teaching, and I knew while I sat with my one distracted student that things would be easier for both of us if neither of us were the only other person.
But then again, how much easier do any of us want this to be? I think of the schools in the flatlands, where lockdowns happen often, occasioned by the gunfire in the neighborhood beyond the gates. I think of what the speech therapist texted me. I heard the shots outside my office last time. I think of the kids who can hear the shots, too.
Today, we were safe. Usually, we’re all safe, at Greene Elementary. But the man with a gun–he was a student once, also. And the school shootings that make the news happen, just as often, in affluent communities. It’s rare, but it’s reality. So perhaps it shouldn’t scare us.
Perhaps it’s just a part of my job, our lives, society. The fear that I felt. The way the kids looked up to us. The fifth grade teacher, walking down the hallway to keep the third graders safe. Ms. Heidi, blocking the door with her body. The all-clear, at last.
Our plans for next time.