It would probably not surprise you to know that I have always had a planned evacuation route from my classroom should there be a school shooting. I had one in the middle school where I worked for one year, the high school where I worked for ten years, and I have one for the community college where I work now.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, I felt ill. First, as a parent of a kindergartner, I mourn for those parents who went home Friday afternoon childless. I sat on my couch Friday night and felt immobilized by the mere idea of losing one of my children to something so violent and so senseless. We lay low all weekend and soaked each other in, grappling with the unbearable heaviness of being when the grief around you is so palpable.
Running parallel to my grief as a mother is my grief as a teacher. I grieve for the teachers who feared for their own lives and the lives of their students, for the teachers who died, and for the teachers who survived and who just recently went back to the classrooms. I am heavy thinking of the choices the teachers made that day—the choices that perhaps bore the burden of life or death.
I wonder what I would have done.
I bet many teachers have wondered the same.
We went on lockdown once during my eleven years of teaching secondary school. Lockdown meant there was a gun or an intruder (or both) in the school building. You might think that since I taught in a high school with a large percentage of students who openly admitted their affiliation to gangs that we would have had many issues with guns, but it was the opposite. The students had a strict code of keeping the street in the street. They did not believe in bringing guns into school. There was consensus on this topic each year when we watched “Bowling for Columbine” during our political satire unit and discussed school violence. They explained that they needed guns to survive in their neighborhoods, but when they came to school they wanted all that left behind. They were eloquent, logical, and passionate in this claim. And this rule repeated itself year after year, from the mouths of different students, making it more and more believable to me as the years passed.
Their beliefs were proven true the day we went on lockdown.
A student had brought a gun to school. A young man who desperately wanted to fit in with the harder, gangster crowd, had acquired his first gun. He brought it to school in his backpack to show it off, wrapped in his sweatpants for gym class. The students were so shocked that he had violated the unspoken code of keeping the street in the street that they snitched.
For anyone who has ever taught inner city kids before (or watched The Wire), to snitch on someone is a decision with hard consequences. The adage goes, “Snitches get stitches and end up in ditches,” but in this case of the gun in the building was so deeply wrong that several students didn’t care. “Mr. Jones has entered the building” was stated calmly—too calmly—over our intercom system, our school’s code to go on lockdown. I was the school’s literacy coach at the time, and I was co-teaching in my colleague Nicole’s classroom. We locked the doors. We tried to proceed with this lesson, but it was futile. The students had their phones. Words started to travel. A gun. A SWAT team. Rumors. Agitation. And then, in our locked-down classroom, a fight.
I was about 6 weeks pregnant at the time, but nobody knew except the teacher whose classroom I was in. I had had a late miscarriage the prior spring, and the small life inside me made me feel very vulnerable. When the girls starting beating each other up, I walked away. I called security, but nobody answered. I disengaged. I stood on the opposite side of the room. Don’t hit my stomach, I thought. Fight until you fall over. I am NOT mixing it up with you. I am guarding this baby. Screw you.
I was 100% in self-preservation mode.
My colleague, who is a mere 5 feet tall, could not break the fight up. Finally, some students separated the girls, but only after blood, ripped out hair weave, torn clothes, and bruises had been accomplished. It was ugly, but it seemed done.
About five minutes later, a student commented, “Star—you look like a fuckin’ unicorn!”
We noticed that one of the girls from the fight had a huge purple goose egg on her forehead. She had been attacked sitting at her desk and had received many blows to the head/skull area. She was bleeding from another punch she had taken to the side of her skull near her temple where a ring (?) had broken the skin. We asked if she was okay, and she admitted that she felt nauseous and was seeing stars. As we talked to her, she grew pale. She did not look well.
We had to decide what to do. Should we leave this girl, who obviously had a head injury, in the classroom and hope she would be okay or walk her downstairs to the nurse during lockdown? The halls were deathly quiet. We had no idea what was happening outside the room minus the rumors from our students’ cell phones, but we knew that inside the room we had an injured student who was on the verge of passing out.
These are the choices teachers have to make.
I sprang into action, suddenly engaged. I helped the student up, and we ventured into the quiet hall, her heavily leaning on me from dizziness. We moved towards one of two stairwells that led to the nurse’s office, but it was the wrong choice. We walked head-first into school security leading the SWAT team to the classroom where the gun was, a classroom around the corner from ours. The student with the gun didn’t know they were coming for him and his backpack, but the teacher had been informed. (All this information was told to us after the fact.) I got cursed out for being in the hall by multiple people as I escorted the student in a five minute journey to the nurse. When we got to the nurse, the nurse deemed that the student had a concussion and her parents were called to take her to the ER. I sat with her until her father got there, and he thanked me kindly for looking out for her.
The student with the gun was escorted out of the building without hassle while we were in the nurse’s office.
I tell this story because for weeks I have put myself in the shoes of those teachers and wondered what I would do if a shooter entered my school. My first response was that I would get the hell out to get home to my own children. I have a three and a five year old and they need me much more than a high school or college student, I reasoned. And then I felt guilty—like choosing my own children over the children I teach was wrong, like I was a lesser teacher, mother, or human for even thinking such a thought. If there is one thing that becoming a mother has taught me about teaching is that every student in my classroom is somebody’s baby with a mother out there who loves them like I love my kids. Love so deep you would die for your child without a second thought. I had never felt this love before becoming a mother. It is a feeling akin to feeling crazy.
Would I die for your child? I don’t know.
During this incident of lockdown at my school, I tried to disengage for the sake of self-preservation but in the end I couldn’t. What would I do if the stakes were higher?
I hope I never have to find out. I hope I never have to make that choice between my life, my children, and yours. I hope. I hope. I hope.
[This was first published in The Huffington Post here.]