A few years ago I was in a meeting before school when one of our clerks came in and told us that the police just called. We needed to immediately go into lockdown because a man who had been shooting randomly in the apartments across the street had been seen running onto our campus.
I had been worried about this kind of day. Columbine happened when I was in elementary school, but plenty of other mass shootings had taken place after I started teaching (Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, etc.). Every time I heard about another school shooting I wondered what kind of teacher would I be in that situation. Would I bravely and selflessly put myself in the line of fire to save a child? Or would I panic and freeze under pressure? I scared myself just thinking about it.
People are quick to say what they would and wouldn’t do in an emergency or tense situation. I’ve heard so many people give confident answers about how they would react heroically in a life-threatening circumstance, and I’ve always wondered how they could be so sure. I think I’m generally a good person, but if I’ve learned anything being on this planet, I’ve learned that you can never know how you will think, feel, or react in a situation until you are there.
That day a few years ago, I was there.
Eerily, almost robotically, the other teachers and I got up and walked briskly but calmly just as our principal came on the intercom. In a controlled but clearly tense voice he announced we were on lockdown and told us to grab any students in the hallway that we could and usher them into our rooms.
I don’t even remember getting to my room, but when I did I had about twenty kids following me in as I locked the door from the outside. When I could see the hallway was clear, I went inside and turned off the lights. Students were asking questions nervously, but I told them everything was going to be fine and that they had to stay quiet. I happened to have my desks stacked on top of each other in a corner of the room for a class activity that day and told the kids to sit behind them, which was of sight from the classroom window. They did so quickly and silently, to my surprise. As noiselessly as I could, I slid a few desks onto their sides and up against the door so that they were barricading it shut but not able to be seen from the window at the door. My reasoning was that if someone were to break down the door, they could at least be deterred for a few more moments. I crouched on the hinge side of the door, between the door barricade I’d made and my students.
Once I was still, I could think again. I was surprised how easy it was to think. Except for my heart beating at full volume in my ears, I was completely calm and lucid.
Our prior training for a school shooting only went as far as turning off lights, locking doors, and hiding, but I reasoned that if the shooter actually made it into my room, it would not take them long to find my students. The only hope of stopping something from happening would be for me to act fast. I was at the perfect angle from my crouching position to tackle from the knees—the report had said the shooter was alone, so I knew my chances wouldn’t be great, but would be better than if there were more than one attacker.
For another minute or so, everything was silent. And then I could hear boots—a single pair—outside our building heading into our wing. I held my breath. I could hear a few students whimpering. Mine was the first door on the right after walking inside. If an attacker were to enter, my room would surely be the first target.
The footsteps came closer and were heavy but purposeful, a gait almost at a jog. I was afraid, but still strangely calm. I was made of adrenaline. Not the jumpy, scary-movie kind. A weird adrenaline that made me feel at once alert and perfectly still.
I watched the handle on the inside of my door jerk up and down. He was trying the door.
I’m ready to die, I thought. I felt a hundred things—regret, anticipation, certainty, uncertainty, courage, fear. I waited to hear a gunshot, a boot kicking down the door, something.
But then I heard the boot steps moving down the hall. I heard the other doors being tried. And then I heard them leave.
It wasn’t until later that day that I found out the footsteps I heard belonged to someone in a SWAT unit doing a sweep of the building. Why they didn’t announce who they were, I still have no idea.
Our school was in lockdown for around an hour before we were given the all clear. Evidently the shooter had run towards our school but never actually onto school property. He was caught minutes later in a neighboring apartment complex.
This wasn’t the first non-drill lockdown I’ve been in, and I know it won’t be the last. But this was the first lockdown where I felt almost certain of my own death at the hands of someone with a gun.
The good news is that I know I'm much braver than I thought I was. (And since I can’t even handle haunted houses, chances are you are much braver than you think, too.) I know that I can count on that weird adrenaline to take over and think for me when I'm in a situation like that.
The bad news is that I might actually be gunned down one day. School shootings are now common.
This week, after hearing about Umpqua, I questioned whether I want to teach anymore, and not for the first time. The number of firearm-related deaths, whether mass shootings or not, in the past decade combined with Congress’s refusal to enact stricter gun laws indicates to me that the trend in America of mass shootings is only going to grow.
There are so many problems facing teachers and students in our country’s educational system, and I haven’t stayed silent about them on this blog. But for the first time I’m realizing exactly how much I’m up against. It’s a much larger beast than I thought. But for now, I will continue to find an answer to the question I’ve been pondering this week, which is really the question at the heart of every issue that has bothered me since I began teaching:
Why don’t I matter to you, Congress?
I hope I never die in a school shooting, or a shooting at a movie theater, or in a place of worship, or on a street corner. But if I do, let my death be on the consciences of those who learn about mass shootings, have the legislative power to do something about it, and look the other way.