Marian walked across the hall to my classroom after school this past Monday, a puzzled expression on her face, a piece of paper in her hand.
“How are you going to fill this out?” she asked, pointing to the medical information sheet the school nurse had emailed to the faculty earlier in the day. Marian wasn’t asking about the medical part of the form but about the contact information at the bottom. Who should be notified if we are sick or injured at school?
In the past, Marian and I would have listed each other as one of the contacts. We have taught together for many years. We have been best friends even longer. Once upon a time, she was my student.
Now she was considering what to do if we die together in a mass shooting at school.
A morbid thought? Certainly. A ridiculous one? Not at all.
I won’t remind you of the astonishing statistics concerning school shootings in this country. That information is, sadly, all too easy to find. Nor will I tell you heartbreaking stories about the many victims—including first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary—because you can see their innocent faces with a few keyboard clicks.
Neither statistics nor stories seem to move anyone anymore. If they ever did.
The media could save time and trouble by simply replaying old footage the next time we have a school shooting—the same voices calling for closing loopholes in gun laws, the same counterpoint that mental health is the real issue, the same hopeless flailing that nothing will make a difference so why even try.
In the meantime, Marian and I Google information about whether bullets can penetrate cinderblock walls. There’s a surprising amount of information about this online, the first time I’ve been grateful to extremist survivalist groups.
Almost forty years ago when I started teaching, we practiced keeping our students safe during fire drills and tornado drills. During Earthquake Awareness Month when the alarm went off we crawled under the flimsy desks and hoped the ceiling stayed in place.
When the Catawba Nuclear Plant came online, our faculty meetings included what to do in the case of what Duke Power calls “an event.” I’ve rolled my eyes every time the administration describes an imagined orderly evacuation of packed school buses to places beyond the radiation zone.
After Columbine we started having armed intruder drills where we stopped what we were doing and locked our doors. After Newtown we were told to lock ourselves and our students in our classrooms at all times. Now we routinely practice hiding during lockdown drills. Can an intruder see through the tiny glass door inserts, the other teachers and I wonder? The darkest corner for hiding is separated from the hallway by a cinderblock wall—which is why during our planning period we look up information about ballistics and map out the spot in our rooms where our students are least likely to be shot.
That’s what it is to be a teacher in America now.
That’s what our children are learning in school.
Does anyone hear this? Is anyone even listening? Or doesn’t sound travel through a cinderblock wall—the way a bullet can?
Kay McSpadden teaches high school english in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.