“Remember that activity when we all get in the closet and pretend we’re not even there, so our principal can’t find us?” I choose my words carefully as I prep my pre-kindergarten students for the lockdown drill scheduled for that afternoon. These drills have become routine at Arlington, Virginia, elementary schools, and at schools across the country. After the latest school shooting, on October 24 in Washington state, schools will no doubt be running through drills yet again. What can we do about all these shootings?, teachers ask each other. Lock the doors, we’re told, and assume the worst is coming.
When you’re guiding 4- and 5-year-olds through a drill, your choice of words can mean everything. “Activity,” not “game,” because we laugh during games, and I can’t risk introducing laughter. I don’t say “police,” because some little kids find police officers scary, and I can’t risk introducing tears. Instead, even though our principal isn’t there this day, I want them to picture his kind but purposeful face when they hear the police officers and administrators hustling down the hallway, testing the doorknob of each room. I don’t say “quiet,” because I can’t risk them shushing one another while they are crammed together, practically sitting in each other’s laps. And because it’s not quiet that’s required for this drill, but rather complete silence. As silent as children who aren’t there at all.
After lunch we hear a fiddling with the loudspeaker. Our well-meaning assistant principal is nearing retirement, and certain technologies, such as the many buttons on the intercom, are a strain on her. There is a low mumbling, which may be coaching from the office staff. More fumbling — perhaps a drop. Then, flustered, at last, the assistant principal says, “Lockdown, everyone, thank you.”
My eyes meet my assistant’s over the heads of our students. Usually, we get the announcement: “We are in a lockdown. This is a drill.” The assistant principal didn’t say the word “drill.” But of course it has to be. We were told about it in an all-staff email hours ago. This is totally routine, I tell myself. I’m annoyed that I took even a split second to consider an alternative.
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I stand, make purposeful eye contact with my preschoolers and gesture with my hands that we are going to the closet, right now. My expression here must be just so. Too much smile, and they'll ask questions and laugh. Too much severity, and they'll balk, rebel or be fearful. Make a sound with my hands or feet, and they will, too. Tip-toe too slowly, and they will, too. All is well, I must convey, but I am not kidding.
We get the children into the closet. My assistant lowers the window blinds, submerging our bright classroom in an odd, midday twilight, while I go to the classroom door. I quickly check for any children in the hallway, anyone I could pull to safety in my room. That’s part of the protocol. But who do I think would be there? The whole school is doing this drill. It is, in fact, just a drill, I reassure myself. I lock the door, pull a paper shade over the glass and, silently, step back to the closet.
We don’t quite fit, 16 tiny bodies sitting crisscross applesauce, hands in laps, plus two adults. But I nudge my way in, and I begin to work the room, pulling out every teacher trick I know to maintain the silence while we wait.
We hear the echoing footsteps, then the sharp, metallic rattle of the doorknob. I absolutely know that I locked that door not three minutes before, and yet I’m flooded with an absurd relief when our lock holds. The footsteps fall away down the hallway, and we hear the next door rattle, and the next. It won’t be long now.
But it is. Usually these drills last somewhere between three and four minutes. The doorknob rattles, there’s a pause, and then the principal’s voice on the loudspeaker thanks us for our cooperation and excellent readiness, and invites us to enjoy the rest of our afternoon.
This time, another minute passes, and then another. No announcement. I press my finger to my lips with a look that says: Don’t even wonder for a second if I’m serious because I am. I step from the close air of the closet into the cool, still classroom. I listen. Not a sound.
And even though I know better, even though I could reason my way around this drill, I fall headfirst into the scenario that this whole theatrical production has invited me to play out. Okay, this is it. So, who am I? Am I the one who dies valiantly tackling the shooter? Am I the quick-thinking teacher who saves several hidden children, telling the shooter they’re in the auditorium, before I am shot? Am I the teacher who sprawls into a body shield with all my best intentions but succeeds only in dying along with my charges? My inner voice, as clear as an actual voice in that silence, reminds me: You’re a mom. Hide. You have children of your own. I turn back to the closet.
Near my hand is a stuffed animal we call Puppy Dog, our class mascot. He’s a special friend to my students, who live in apartments and don’t have pets. We sing to Puppy Dog each morning and say goodbye to him every afternoon. I pick him up now with only a vague idea of what trick I'll pull out next. Maybe we'll each give him a squeeze, then pass him to the next friend. I don’t know how much more miracle silence I can produce. The children have already far exceeded my expectations. I crouch with them again, aware that I am shaking.
That drill last spring, the one without the word “drill,” lasted 13 minutes. No full explanation was offered about why it went on so long — a mix-up regarding the checking of hallways, it seems, and possibly some missing keys. It doesn’t really matter. Minor mistakes that result in the addition of mere minutes shouldn’t be any big deal.
But this was a big deal. It was the lockdown drill that spilled over its edges into Lockdown. I made the mental shift, if only for a moment, from the routine to a pure, clear terror.
Which of those states of mind makes more sense? I teach in a country awash in weaponry. Maybe that moment I stood alone in my classroom was when I was closest to the truth. In 13 minutes, according to my gruesome and involuntary mental calculus, a single gunman with his effortlessly obtained XM15-E2S rifle and 26 rounds in each of two additional magazines could potentially kill 78 of us. Even considering the time it takes to calmly reload.
Instead of controlling guns and inconveniencing those who would use them, we are rounding up and silencing a generation of schoolchildren, and terrifying those who care for them. We are giving away precious time to teach and learn while we cower in fear.
It’s time to stop rehearsing our deaths and start screaming.
Launa Hall is a teacher in Arlington, Virginia, and is working on a collection of essays about teaching.
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