Sometimes you can’t write about something while it’s happening or right after it happens because it’s too close, too present. Even after the event is over, it lingers around you and then on you like the smoke of a stolen cigarette while out one night. Even once that fades, this thing bounces around in the recesses of your brain. You’re not sure when or if to write about it at all until you reach a point in which you must write or go nuts. The story has become a parasite. You must expel it.
That is what finally happened today. With this story. With me.
Last fall I experienced the most terror I have ever felt as a teacher. The event itself was not terrifying, but the weeks that followed were filled with anxiety-filled conversations with colleagues, a sense of constant paranoia at work, visualizing evacuation routes from my classrooms, feigning calm while talking to scared students, and many nights laying in bed wondering if the threat would become a reality.
It all started innocently enough with a small classroom altercation between two students. Student A, let’s call him John, got into a verbal argument with Student B, let’s call her Mary, over Student C, whom we will call Mark.
Mark was a student on the spectrum with some learning disabilities. Now that I teach in college, I am not allowed to know what those disabilities are unless Mark discloses them to me. Given that he is nonverbal, this did not happen. We were about six weeks into the fall semester and John started picking on Mark. John also had various learning disabilities, again which I was not privy to. As John harassed Mark, Mary broke in and came to Mark’s defense:
Mary: Why don’t you leave him alone?
John: What? Why does everyone in this class HATE me?!
Mary: Nobody hates you, you just say a lot of stupid shit.
Class had been dismissed at this point, and students packed up and left. A few stayed and talked with me about their first major essay assignment towards the front of the room. I heard the two of them arguing in the back, but I decided to let them work it out. This is college after all, and although they used loud voices they were not yet yelling. However, after Mary accused John of saying “a lot of stupid shit,” he yelled:
John: You know what? I am going to blow this school up on Halloween. You watch, I am going to make this a second Virginia Tech!
And with that he grabbed his backpack and marched out of the room, covered with sweat and talking to himself as he went.
I snapped to attention.
I looked to the students still in the room and asked, “Did he just say what I think he just said?” They gravely nodded.
“Okay,” I sighed. Crap. Crapcrapcrap.
I had to report this, but there were a few minutes in which I debated whether this was serious or just a kid acting stupid. I knew that once reported it would become a big deal and I knew that those words were big deal, but for some reason I paused and stood in my classroom frozen for about five minutes before I went to my desk and made the words official.
Even after reporting it, I questioned my decision. I broke down what he said again and again and again–with colleagues, my husband, my friends–trying to make sense of the nonsense. Here’s what stood out to me:
1. He had a specific date. That was weird. Although Halloween is a date known for mischief, it seemed like there was an element of premeditation involved and whether or not that was fantastical I could not judge.
2. He referenced Virginia Tech. The Virginia Tech shooting, the largest college campus massacre, happened in 2007. This kid had just finished high school which means Tech happened when he was 12 or 13 years old. Why did he reference Tech? Tech looms large in my conscious because I am from Virginia, my husband went to Tech, and, in fact, one of my colleagues was a student at Tech when the massacre happened. But for this New York City kid to reference Virginia Tech unsettled me.
I kept replaying what he said over and over again in the weeks that followed. He got suspended from our college. He had to undergo a psychological evaluation by college professionals and was set to stand in front of the student/faculty disciplinary committee. His parents lawyered up and came to our school and accused our faculty and staff of all sorts of unprofessionalism. Our faculty and staff met with lawyers to prepare for his case. Mary stopped coming to school and has yet to come back regularly. Students got scared, and I talked to them about the training we had received as educator professionals on school shootings (written about here).
And, for the first time in my teaching career, I was scared.
When this event happened, it was my 14th year of being a full-time teacher/professor of urban students in New York City.
I first taught in Bushwick, Brooklyn in the 2000-2001 at the now defunct IS 111. At that time, Bushwick was the #1 place in New York City to be shot at random according to the New York Times. I saw prostitutes on Central Avenue when I got off the B38 bus at 7am. There were crack vials all over Starr Street, the street my school was on. My classroom looked out onto an empty lot filled with dirty mattresses and dog shit and the occasional addict napping amid the two. My first week of class, a student took out a dime bag of weed and the next week that same student got punched in his face in my classroom over what was, according to the students, a gang issue. During the winter months, the principal forced all us young, white teachers out of the building by 4:00 so that we wouldn’t walk to the train/bus/cars in the dark.
Given all this, I never felt scared.
Next I taught for ten years at Cobble Hill School of American Studies. We were a Blood school, according to the students. Whenever I wore a red shirt, students would say, “Nice shirt, Miss” and smile. I had students write about the initiation of being jumped into the Bloods, about family lineage in the gang, and explain very logically to me that being in a gang bought you protection in their rough neighborhoods. Students also talked openly about gang rank. I taught one Captain, who never admitted his rank to me but didn’t disagree when another student named him in class. One year, our school admitted several Crip students as upperclassman transfers and we had the biggest school fight I have ever seen on the third floor. The students organized to block off the central hallway so that school security couldn’t get in and Bloods and Crips went at it. After the fight ended, the hallway was smeared with blood, hair weave, random bookbags from arrested students, and torn clothing.
But, I never felt scared.*
I thought about these stories. Surely, as an educator who had borne witness to a ridiculous amount of school violence you would think that I would have been faced fear regularly, but that was not the case. My students repeatedly told me that they had my back. One student admitted that he and his friends had a small Blood enclave at the bottom of my street in Park Slope (!)(this was in 2002, everyone, so don’t freak out), and that if I needed any help any time to let him know. When I was pregnant with my daughter, one of the schools most notorious gangsters would walk in front of me in the crowded hallways, parting the students like Moses parted the Red Sea, yelling: “Get the fuck outta the way! The pregnant teacher is coming through!” and they would all listen. I must admit, I felt a bit like a celebrity those days.
I taught students that society would classify as violent and I taught students who were violent, and yet I felt secure. Of the hundreds of students I taught, nobody ever threatened the safety of me or the school building in which I worked. Not once. Never.
This case was different. That’s why it was terrifying.
John is no longer at our college, but it took weeks before we all started to relax again. And just when I was unwinding from this event, there was a high school shooting in Colorado in December by a student who had made an open threat in September that made me anxious again. And then, in January, several of our students spotted John loitering around our college looking for Mary (whom he believed snitched on her, as he said to another students from their class). Thankfully our students knew this was not good, and they reported it to a professor who reported it it campus security. But, as I said, Mary had yet to come back to classes regularly and this made all of us nervous again, too.
Maybe those were empty threats–I hope beyond hope that these were empty threats–but they did not feel empty. They felt full, almost bursting with promise and anger and nightmarish potential that still color my thoughts. Not every day, but sometimes I catch myself looking around and over my shoulder as I walk from the train towards campus. I deliberately swapped classrooms with a colleague this term, giving her the room with the lovely view of the park and the trees for the ugly view of the alleyway that has an escape route out the windows if you can’t go out the doors. Will these feelings go away?
Is this what teaching–at any grade, at any level–has become?
*I put an asterisk here because once I felt scared, and I wrote about it here, The Choices Teachers Must Make.
I have also written about school shootings in general here: School is Sacred.