My school was on lockdown today. There was a shooting in the dorms on campus this morning, and we were told to shelter in place about five minutes into my second class of the day.
It’s still raw for me, but I need to get this out of my system now.
I don’t have a coherent narrative here. Just some moments. Things that happened.
My One Phone Call
I allowed myself one call at the very beginning, before we knew much, just so I could get my head in the game and focus on the fifteen people in my room. I called my wife, said we were on lockdown, said I loved her, and told her I’d keep her updated.
This was both the appropriate thing to do, as well as a completely shitty thing to do.
She needed to know right away, but I had next to no information for her. It was basically saying “You may need to start panicking a lot, or you might only need to panic just a little for a minute and everything will be fine.”
Not calling would’ve been worse, no matter how the situation ended.
This is apparently my job
- I had to decide on and direct how we were going to situate ourselves during a lockdown to keep everyone calm and make ourselves less susceptible to potential threats.
- I had to bring in additional students from the hall who weren’t in class at the time and make them feel comfortable, even though they’re strangers.
- I had to manage the emotional and physical well-being of a group of people in a high-stress, limited-information environment.
- I had to stay calm and keep from indulging in my own desire to obsessively look for more updates on what was actually happening.
- I had to hold in check those moments when my own fear might spike.
- I had to coordinate my actions with the other people in the building and the directives of university police.
My lesson plan for today involved workshopping some student assignments and letting them go a little early since it’s the last day of class before spring break.
We may not have gotten through all of that.
When There’s Nothing Left To Do, Laugh
Here’s the thing: Being a dad has totally changed my perspective on so many things, but I think the biggest is the value of goofy distraction.
When a small child is locked in to their fight-or-flight freak out response, sometimes you can snap them out of it with just the right distraction.
As it turns out, this can sometimes still work as we get older.
There were many bad puns. There were some side conversations about what we would not be covering in class. There was an extended conversation where I got people who were scared to stop thinking about it for a few minutes and tell the rest of us about their favorite movies.
And I may have monologued a bit on why they all need to watch The Brothers Bloom.
Now that I think about it, that’s something I learned from Rio Bravo, too: Sometimes, even when it feels like there’s danger all around you, you’ve just got to fill that time while you’re waiting. Fill it with whatever you can so fear doesn’t have enough space to take hold.
I am definitely not the kind of person you want managing a large-scale emergency response.
But if you want somebody who will get you to put down your phone and snap out of your cycle of fear for 90 seconds so you don’t collapse under the weight of your anxiety? I’m your huckleberry.
The Kids Are A Little Too Alright
For the most part, the students in my classroom took this pretty well. Or at least they appeared to.
They knew the drill. You check social media. Text and call the people you need to. See who’s following on a police scanner and report it to the rest of the room. Sit tight.
There were a few moments it looked like an absolutely normal classroom, with no outward signs of the manhunt going on outside.
I was glad to see that they were doing a decent job of going with the flow, but the more it sank in, the sadder I felt that this felt so shrug-worthy to them. This is just a thing that needs to be dealt with from time to time. Sheltering in place while police search for a shooter is normal.
The Right Stuff
There’s a line from Trudy Cooper in The Right Stuff that I’m thinking about now.
I went back east to a reunion and all my friends could talk about their husband’s work. How “dog-eat-dog” and cutthroat it was on Madison Ave. Places like that. Cutthroat. I wondered how they would’ve felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one in four chance he wouldn’t come out of that meeting.
Astronauts have dangerous jobs. Police, firefighters, and first responders have dangerous jobs.
Nobody becomes a teacher with the expectation that it’s going to be a dangerous job.
Even though we’ve had shootings in schools for years. Even though we’ve had tragedy after tragedy. You never think you’re going to actually have to come face-to-face with a room full of students looking for you to control a potentially deadly situation.
And the whole time, my brain was instinctively trying to minimize my own fear:
- It’s not a real school shooting, because they don’t have the weaponry to kill a lot of students indiscriminately.
- It’s not a real school shooting, because they keep reminding us in the alert messages that no students have been shot.
- It’s not a *real school shooting, because nothing happened in the actual building I’m in.
- It’s not a real…
But you know what was real?
Your body doesn’t know the difference between fear that you’re experiencing for a tangible, actual reason, and fear you’re experiencing because you’re just thinking about it. That’s how entertainment works: You empathize with the imagined fear of others.
At the start of that lockdown, the fear was real for all the students in my room, even if the threat was less direct to us.
The fear was real.
Fear that comes from knowing that these things just keep happening in this country.
Fear that comes from the knowledge that a person with ill will in their heart and a gun is deadlier than a person with ill will all by themselves.
Fear that comes from students believing that not a single person with any power in this country believes their lives are worth protecting.
I have nothing but bile and contempt for every spineless politician that’s never had to sit in a room full of people, every one of them afraid, looking for you to tell them it’ll be okay. And then to make good on that promise.
The One Bright Side
So many people reached out and got in touch with me throughout this day.
Thank you. Every single one of you.
Thank you for your support, your prayers, your shared fury.
We have to do better, and you make me believe it’s possible.