Next week, we will have an “active shooter”/intruder drill at the school where I teach, and I will hunker down behind flimsy wooden cabinet doors with my students.
You see, we open the cabinets and hide behind the doors so that anyone peering into the classrooms will not see us, and maybe think it is an empty room. Maybe we will be unnoticed, which just means maybe he will go to another classroom.
In preparation, I will remind my students tomorrow that our hallway doors should always be locked, so if an intruder shows up, we can just pull the doors closed without fiddling with keys. I have assigned students to check those doors every period to make sure we don’t forget.
I will try to keep the children quiet during our drill on Tuesday. It’s hard. They’re packed in tight behind those cabinet doors, and they talk and giggle. Because they’re children. They look like young adults, but they’re children.
I will try to keep them quiet, because we hope that this will give that illusion of an empty classroom. I will try to keep them quiet, because even though I know it’s a drill, they do not, and they need to treat each drill like the real thing. They must have the procedure driven in by repetition.
Inevitably, some children will be sure that it is real, and they will be terrified. Two years ago, one boy ― a big hulking kid turning into a “tough guy” ― broke down in tears when the administrator jiggled the doorknob to our room while we hid behind the cabinets.
“Every time we run through these drills, we violate their trust ― their trust in us and their trust in a safe, secure world.”
I will sit down and process feelings of fear and panic with at least a few students. How do we process the panic we put them through? Every time we run through these drills, we violate their trust ― their trust in us and their trust in a safe, secure world. We violate their trust in the name of safety.
Two years ago, a physical education teacher wasn’t informed that the intruder drill was a drill. He panicked and screamed at the kids to “Shut the hell up!” while they were laughing and joking.
Who could blame him? He was terrified.
Afterward, some of the children will talk a big game. How they would jump on a shooter, how they would climb out a window instead of staying in a classroom.
How they’d be a hero.
A few of them ask if I’d do anything to save them in the event of an active shooter. I can’t answer, because although I want to reassure them, I really don’t know, and I don’t know how to express all those complicated feelings.
A few will scoff and say, “Of course Mr. Timothy wouldn’t do anything. He doesn’t like us.”
And I don’t know what to say to that, either, other than to go back to my lesson plan. I strive to be honest with my students, and the honest answer is that I’d do all I can ― I hope. But the human body isn’t much match for gunpowder and lead.
At home, I will replay the drill. Did we get it accomplished quickly? Tightly? Efficiently? Are my children safe? Will they be safe?
Can I keep them safe?
How would I ever live with it if I lost one?
What about 17 of them?
“I still don’t understand why I am expected to teach my children how to survive in a violent world, but my country isn’t expected to make the world less violent.”
Each of these kids, awful and irritating though they can be, is a magical world in and of themselves. Four years and 160 kids in, and they’re still all different and wonderful and fascinating. Every day, if I am very, very careful and very, very patient and very, very lucky, I get to unlock just a little more of one of those fantastic inner worlds.
A chunk of lead, hurtling through the air, thrown by a little explosion triggered by one man’s finger, can destroy that entire world.
I still don’t understand why I am expected to teach my children how to survive in a violent world, but my country isn’t expected to make the world less violent.
None of these questions are academic. None of these questions are distant or political. They are meat and blood and gristle, and they are lives lived in fear for so long that my children don’t know anything that isn’t fear.
So I really don’t give a damn how important owning a gun is to you.
Your sporting right to an AR-15 does not trump my students’ right to a safer world. The terror that stalks American schools has to end.
Phillip Timothy is a 7th grade teacher in San Francisco.