< I’ve been trying to write this post for almost a month now, but I haven’t known how to say all that I want to… I’m worried about over-dramatizing something that, while it felt SO big to me, is really, really small in comparison to some of the tragedies others have experienced… I’m worried about making people scared, revealing something that others could judge as being done incorrectly in the heat of the moment, and about inadvertently inserting myself into a political/social conversation that I’m not fully ready to speak in. But, still, I think this is an important story to share. I’m sharing it for my own memory – as, I’m sure, one day it will feel distant and less raw, and I don’t want to become complacent again – but, more importantly, I’m sharing it because *maybe* it will help someone else be prepared. I want to say that I hope this never ever happens to another teacher, but we all know that isn’t the world we live in. It will. This post is not just about what I experienced, but also what I learned as a result. And maybe, just maybe, my words will help one of you be more ready, more brave, and less scared if it happens at your school… I have thought about these 30 minutes every day for the last four weeks, and I have tried to be as truthful as possible in sharing the details (though, I’m sure, time and fear have warped some of my memories). I’ve also tried to be honest about the mistakes I made in hopes that someone else won’t make the same ones. We didn’t get everything right that day at school, and I won’t get everything right in talking about what happened here; but please know that this comes from a place of humility, gratefulness, respect, and deep, deep compassion for those whose stories ended very differently from mine. >
A few weeks ago, on Good Friday – a day we were, ironically, supposed to have off but had to make-up because of snow – some students in a different program at my school dropped three large platform boards, and a few people screamed at the loud noise. Across campus, a student heard the sounds (three consecutive “bangs”) and – because this is the reality of our world today – thought they were gunshots. The student called 911, and police responded (actually from THREE localities) immediately in response to, what they believed to be at the time, an active shooter.
It was a false alarm.
Less than an hour later, we would learn that we were never in any real danger, but we didn’t know that at the time.
We didn’t know that when the secretary came on the loud speaker sounding frantic and yelled “Lockdown! Lockdown!” while we were examining Brutus and Antony’s speeches in Act 3 of Julius Caesar.
We didn’t know that when we crouched in the corner of my classroom (shown above), completely silent, in the dark. Or when we saw the live feed on the local news station (via our phones) saying that “shots had been fired” at our school.
We didn’t know it was a false alarm when we heard sirens and yelling, and I whispered instructions to my students to throw books (our only defense) if a gunman came through the door. Or when police busted into our classroom with big guns, patted us all down, and led us to the front of the school in a single-file line with our hands over our heads… Exactly like you see on the news when these things happen at other schools.
Friday, March 30th, started as a totally normal day. It was the last class day before a much-anticipated spring break, the sun was shining (finally), and our principal had remarked on the announcements that it was going to be a GREAT day. I had my sophomores that morning, and my co-teacher from across the hall, had a substitute. I’d chatted with the sub before the first bell and, coincidentally, she’d asked me about whether or not we keep the doors locked while we teach. “Yes,” I said, “in case of an emergency lock-down.” I didn’t go into detail about what else to do in the case of a lockdown. Why should I? It was a happy Friday, and… What are the odds?
At about 8:40, from the front of my room where I was standing at the ActivBoard, I noticed an instructional assistant running in the hall through the small glass window on my door. I thought it was odd, but I kept teaching. A minute later, our secretary came on the loud speaker and announced the lockdown. Her voice is what gave it away. She sounded afraid and panicked. In a drill, an administrator would have been the one making the announcement. Something was not right.
This was the real deal.
Here? This can’t be happening HERE.
I stayed calm. I double checked my door to make sure it was locked (it was), turned off the lights, and told students to get on the floor in the back corner of the room. Sirens began outside. A student had to remind me to pull the shade over my window. We’d practiced this many times before, but this time there was no snickering or giggling.
Then, we waited…
We were in the classroom on lockdown for about 25 minutes, but they were the longest 25 minutes of my entire life. In fact, I could have sworn it was at least an hour, but I looked back at my text conversation with Jeff from that morning, and realized I’d sent my first message: “We are on legit lockdown. I know nothing else. I’m scared.” And it was 9:10 when I sent him the “we are out of the classroom” message.
My students were stone silent. Each time we heard the double doors opening and closing in the hallway, I felt the collective inhale of breath around me, and each time, I braced myself for what might be to come. I texted Jeff and my mom and sister. I prayed. Over and over, I kept thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening here.”
Finally, the police arrived. Our guidance counselor, who was off campus that morning, had texted me by this point to tell me they were on the way, and I’m extremely grateful for that warning. I told my class: “When the doors open next, it’s going to be people to help us. Don’t panic.”
By this point, of course, I knew this was serious; but, a naive part of me still thought someone would calmly unlock our door and tell us everything was over. Instead, the police came in loudly and aggressively, screaming “Police! Put Your Hands Up!” There were five or six of them, and they all had the biggest guns I’d ever seen. It was scary and overwhelming. I wanted them to tell us we were OK, that the danger was over, but they didn’t. (They couldn’t, there were still buildings and students to clear.)
They asked me to account for all my students, and then they patted us each down. Finally, they had us line up single-file, put our hands on our head, and follow them out of the building to the front of the school. As we walked, I noticed there were dozens of other police officers around the campus, and I was terrified of what else I might see… I didn’t dare turn my head around, but I kept yelling to the frightened students behind me that we were OK, we were safe now, these were the good guys. I was reminding myself too.
I consider myself pretty well-studied on school shootings etc. (remember, I teach the book Columbine every year, and I’ve read lots more on the subject too – I even wrote this post, “I Feel Safe”, almost exactly two years ago). I’ve sat through dozens of trainings and drills over my decade as a teacher, and I had thought, many times, about what I would do in the case of an emergency… But, still, I wasn’t prepared.
It wasn’t that the school system didn’t do their job – we had systems and procedures for these things and, when we rehearsed, they went smoothly. It’s just that, as much as I wouldn’t have admitted it before, the deepest part of me had convinced myself that that kind of violence could never happen at my school. Maybe we have to, maybe that’s the only way we can go to work every day knowing we are responsible for protecting our students, but I, for one, will never have that security blanket again. No book or video or inservice could ever have prepared me for the fear I felt for those 25 minutes.
As I huddled in the corner with 19 teenagers that morning, I prayed for protection (from whatever unseen violence was going on on our campus), for peace (understandably, several students were visibly upset and all of us were incredibly scared), and for wisdom (to know WHAT TO DO if someone dangerous came through that door, to know HOW to keep my students safe, and to be able to act quickly and correctly if the situation called for it). As it turns out, God gave me all three of those things, but the wisdom came mostly in the aftermath. While this was a terrible experience that I would NEVER wish on anyone, we (our administrators, staff, students, and the local police force) learned more in this one experience than we ever could have from a drill, and I’m determined to make good use of those lessons.
To start, I’m sharing them here in hopes that you, readers, will learn from my errors, share this with fellow educators, and be better prepared than I was for something like this. I am keenly aware that the ending to my story was incredibly “lucky.” Most people don’t get a second chance…
What I Learned:
Ultimately, YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN. (You will forget things, and the “protocol” won’t matter.)
When our secretary came on the speaker that morning, I knew right away that it wasn’t a drill, but for a few seconds, I got hung up on the wording of her announcement. She didn’t say “Lockdown with Intruder,” so, at first, I assumed this was one of those situations we practice in which we lock the doors, don’t let anyone in or out, and continue teaching. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it was a student – she quickly texted her dad who worked at another office in our school district and told her to “take it seriously and hide” – that convinced me we needed to go into a full lockdown. We wasted only 30 seconds, max, but – in hindsight – those 30 seconds could have made a HUGE difference had this scenario had played out in a different way.
That morning, I forgot to pull the shades in my classroom. I forgot to tell my students to dim the lights on their cell phones before they texted their parents. I forgot to make sure none of my students could see out or be seen through the window on the door, until two of them gasped at the sight of officers armed with rifles sweeping the hallway. I forgot all about the red “safety bag” teachers carry with them in every drill we ever conduct here. I even forgot to take roll when we got out of the school. (Yes, in case you’re wondering, some of these mistakes have haunted me ever since.)
Likewise, one of the things that surprised me the most about this whole experience was how little communication I had from my administrators etc. Thinking back, it seems ridiculous now, but I kept (almost obsessively) checking my email on my phone for some kind of instruction while we were in hiding. I don’t know why I thought people would take the time, during a crisis situation, to send an email, but I must have pushed refresh on my email 100 times waiting for someone to tell me what to do… No one ever did.
Other than the brief announcement, I didn’t hear another word from anyone else on campus until we were safely out of the building a half an hour later. I HATED the not knowing, but I understand it now.
I’m a rule-follower and a “details person.” I love a good checklist! Those facts about me have served me well in many areas in my life, but a lock-down situation is NOT one of those… Ultimately, I learned from this “trial run”, that – as much as it pains me to admit – my natural reaction in an emergency is more likely to be “freeze” or “forget” than “fight,” and, in a situation like this, that’s NOT GOOD ENOUGH. The 19 kids in my care needed ME to be the one giving instructions instead of waiting around for someone else to give them to me. In a real crisis, I’m going to have to think and act ON MY OWN, and quickly.
Our school is, obviously, making some changes (like getting shades for the glass on the doors and changing the wording for calling a lockdown when the threat is out of the school to “shelter in place,” for starters), but I’m taking initiative on my own too. I have to. I know that now. If this ever happens again, I will know not to wait for more details or instructions, but to ACT immediately. Also, knowing myself, I’ve added several more specific notes/reminders on the Crisis Procedures reference sheet I have taped to the clipboard where I keep my attendance. It has the basics of a lockdown already, but I wrote in things like “pull shades” and “dim and silence cell phones” to help limit the amount of thinking I have to do on the spot next time.
If you do nothing else after reading this, I strongly recommend that you walk through this scenario in your classroom, create your own checklist that includes even the most “obvious” things, and put it somewhere you will already have on or near you. Do this BEFORE you find yourself frozen in fear like I was.
There’s no such thing as overreacting.
Another thing about me is that I tend to over-dramatize things that really aren’t that important; and, likely because I know that about myself, I tend to downplay things that actually DO matter (like the time I waited almost 24-hours before taking my two-year-old to the hospital with a broken femur). I don’t know if it was a defense mechanism, or what, but my first inclination – as I’ve already mentioned – when we went into lockdown was to assume it was “no big deal.”
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but one of my biggest regrets from that day – even knowing now that we were actually never in any real danger – is that I didn’t take it MORE seriously.
I think a small part of me thought that by not overreacting, I was helping to keep my students more calm – and that might have been true – but I still wish I had done more, sooner. At one point, I actually remember saying that hiding in the dark was “probably overkill…”
About five minutes into the lockdown, after I got a text from a friend at another school saying that three shots had been fired, I realized that we should have barricaded the door with furniture at the very least; but, at that point, it felt too risky to move around and make noise. Going back to my previous point, these situations require you to make SPLIT SECOND DECISIONS right at the beginning of the lockdown. After that, you have to just kind-of stick with whatever you’re doing because – after the first minute or so – the priority becomes being quiet and hidden.
If I had to do it over again, no question, I would have had students push desks and chairs in front of the door and I’d have armed every one of them with a textbook to throw and/or shield themselves with AS SOON AS I heard the announcement.
Next time, I will treat ANY threat as SERIOUS, and I will react with every “tool” available to me. I won’t waste a single second worrying about over-reacting, because, honestly, there is NOTHING TO LOSE if you do too much, and I’d WAY rather be on that side of things than the alternative.
<It’s worth noting here that, from my perspective, the police and the school administration DID take this seriously and reacted with full force and fast. I’m sure they didn’t do everything exactly right, but I’m extremely grateful for their response, and I take comfort in knowing that they were working diligently behind the scenes that morning to keep me and my students safe.>
Your students will AMAZE you.
This simply can’t be stressed enough: My students were absolutely incredible. They were quiet, they were calm, they were mature, they were courageous. They hugged each other and prayed together. Some of them were ready to charge if someone came through the door. THEY are my heroes.
I will never forget that morning with those 19 students. In one of the scariest experiences of all of our lives, those kids were SO much more than a job to me. They were my friends and my partners. They comforted me. I have no doubt that, had to I had to make any moves, they would have had my back 100% (not that I would have expected or asked that of them).
Teenagers, in every generation, but maybe especially this one, get a bad rap. But you will NEVER convince me that they are anything short of amazing.
The teenagers I know are kind and smart and powerful. They know a post-Columbine world that most adults don’t fully understand, and they are NOT WILLING TO ACCEPT THAT WORLD. I could not be prouder than I am of this generation, and I am 100% confident that they are going to CHANGE THE WORLD. Just you wait.
You are SO much braver than you think you are.
I’ve talked a lot about the things I did wrong that morning, but I also did a lot of things right. Mainly, I was brave. I was very, very scared, but I held it together because of my students. My thoughts were always about them, and when I felt helpless in other areas, I tried to think about what I would want a teacher to do in this situation with my own kids: keep them calm, comfort them, make sure they felt loved. I told my students we were OK. I reassured them that the police were going to do their job. I reached out and touched them. I told them I loved them. I was terrified and, as evidenced above, I didn’t fully know what I was doing… But, to my students, I was STRONG and IN CHARGE.
On March 30th, as I sat in the dark with my students and waited for a shooter to come into my room, I had a million questions and doubts about what I could/should/would do; but I was absolutely CERTAIN that I would give up my own life to save theirs.
I don’t say those things or share any of this to sound like a hero. I wasn’t. I know hundreds of teachers who would do the exact same thing for their students.
Finally, and I’ll end with this, this experience has made me keenly aware of the strength of the teachers from Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and countless other schools, that have some how found the grit to GO BACK to the classroom after living through horrific tragedy.
At one point during the lockdown, I remember thinking – “I don’t think I can ever teach again. I can never, willingly, walk back into a situation where I might feel like this again.” I went to college to teach literature, not to protect people from guns. I’m a TEACHER, for crying out loud. This isn’t worth it.
I’m not proud of those feelings, but they are the truth. I was scared, and I’m a human… But, later, when everything was clear, I felt differently. I wanted to talk to and just be with my students more than anyone else when the dust cleared that day. We’d been through something traumatic together – something no one else could fully understand without being there – and it bonded us deeply. We cried together and processed what had just happened. We needed each other.
I guess that’s why the teachers go back… Because, at our core, we don’t just teach because we love our subject matter, or because we want summers off, and it’s certainly not for the money. Despite everything the media and the politicians might say today, WE TEACH BECAUSE WE LOVE THE KIDS.
If you’re a momma reading this and feeling afraid about sending your babies to school, you need to know how much your children’s teachers care about them. You need to know that, when you aren’t there, your children’s teachers WILL step in. We will teach them to read and write and give them grades, but we will also squeeze their hands, and give hugs, and protect them from monsters – AT EVERY COST.
And teachers, if you are reading this and feeling afraid about finding yourself in a situation like this (or the hundreds that have been much, much worse), you need to know that you CAN do it. You are SO much tougher than you realize. You do not need to be afraid, but you DO need to be prepared. I hope my story will help.
If you’ve read this whole thing, THANK YOU. I’ve thought about the events of March 30th, 2018 every single day for the last four weeks, and writing about it has been therapeutic for me. And, as I said in the opening, if I can help one teacher be better prepared for an emergency, then the whole experience was worth it. I mean that.
If you have questions, please leave them in the comments, and I will try to answer them there so that everyone can see. Or, of course, you are welcome to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).