Column: What does it mean to be safe?
March 23, 2018
This column is part of a series written by teacher guest writers on a topic they are interested in exploring. This was submitted to The Oracle for review by the Editorial Board.
It was pitch black and cold. Christmas was so close; we could all taste it. My students and I were joking around waiting for their parents at evening dismissal when some passers-by hailed me and asked if I was in charge. They said there was a man all in black with a rifle in the parking lot. I told them to get lost. I thought they were joking.
But they weren’t.
According to the police report filed later, there actually was a man in all black with a rifle in our parking lot. Depending on who you talk to, that rifle was semi-automatic. I don’t know, because thankfully I never saw the weapon. If I had, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. I have a hard time remembering the exact sequence of events from that night, because my only priority was the safety of my students and teachers.
I’ve been teaching since 2006, and by the time I was an assistant principal of a small charter school located on the first floor of a church, I had started to feel like an expert on disasters. Our school was so small that not only was I the assistant principal, I was a seventh grade math teacher, and I was also often in charge of after school, athletics, playground supervision and being our literal gatekeeper.
My principal was at an off-site meeting. She and I had running joke was that things only went horrifyingly wrong when she wasn’t there to be the brains to my heart of our operation. She was all logic and reason, I was crazy plans and enthusiasm.
The thing about being a disaster expert is that it’s an oxymoron: there’s no way to be prepared for any possible disaster. The evacuation plan for the building at the time involved going in the exact direction of the reported approaching gunman. In this case, “lockdown” was a complete misnomer because there was no safe way to lock down the space. Some doors never locked, I did not have the keys to some others and some just didn’t close at all.
In the seconds after I decided to believe the passers-by, I was pulled in all directions.We didn’t have an intercom or a front door like a typical school, so I had to focus on calculating which doors were worth trying to lock and locking them, turning our evacuation plan into a hiding plan and calling 911. I wished I could call my principal and hear her calmly tell me the next step I needed to take. I wanted to call my family and say goodbye, to hear my son’s little voice just one more time.
I opted to call 911 and stuffed all seven of us inside my office. My office was tiny but it locked. It had a closet that also locked, two plausibly bullet-proof desks and it gave me access to the video for our security cameras, so I would see anyone coming.
The 911 dispatcher suggested I go outside and get them a description of the shooter, with special attention to age and race, and I was so discombobulated that I actually went to check. My spouse was texting me in all caps with every punctuation possible something along the lines of “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU ARE GOING TO CHECK?”
I was lucky that I didn’t see the man. I locked another door and went back to the office. My usually loquacious preteens were unnaturally quiet when I returned. I can’t remember what I texted my family besides goodbyes and love. How do you say goodbye to the person you’ve loved for six years, and the baby wrapped so thoroughly around your heart?
The 911 dispatcher wanted me to stay on the phone. I remember waiting. As we watched the security cameras for the gunman I kept thinking I should have tried to lock more doors. I remember wishing the students thought it was a drill and the helplessness of knowing that if something went wrong, I would take the blame for it. My brain refused to accept the possibility that I wouldn’t hold my son again. I remember thinking I never wanted to go down this way.
Unlike previous lockdowns I’d been in, I was the only person who could lift the lockdown. One wrong move and we’d be dead. We waited.
When the 911 dispatcher told me that the suspect and his rifle were in custody, I finally let my staff and students talk openly. I told them all how proud of them I was, how much I loved them all and how following directions might have saved their lives. I hugged each of them.
We opened the door, and I got to return three babies to their parents unscathed, and really, that is what we teachers do. There were tears in the parents’ eyes. At the end of the day, if we haven’t managed to cram your brain full of exponents, at least we return you intact to your families.
Our story was such a happy ending that it was never reported in the news, or even a particularly well-known event in our school community. We all went home uninjured. If I hadn’t gotten follow-up calls from the city about this incident months later I could almost convince myself that I only imagined the danger we were in. But I’ve come to realize that our safety is an illusion. My building was uniquely unwieldy, but in every school shooting that I’ve read about no matter how safe the building was, there was always some loophole to be exploited.
I joke with my current Archer students and call myself a “safety nut,” but I’m not really joking. It’s hard for me to hear students act like their teachers or administrators are the enemies in this fight or like we are foolishly overprotective to value their safety outside these walls. As an administrator, when the 911 dispatcher told me to go outside to check the suspect’s description, I went. I went knowing I might take a bullet for my students and teachers. It was worth it if it meant that I could potentially send six people home to their families, even if my family lost a wife and mom.
These are the calculations that every member of a school faculty and staff in our country in 2018 has to be willing to make if we, as a country, don’t take action for sensible gun reform. It is why Archer administrators, faculty and staff stood on Sunset Boulevard to keep our students safe on the curb. It’s why the idea of our students on Sunset at all made our hearts stop with fear as well as pride.