WREE! WREE! WREE!
The alarm buzzed like a knife in my ears, cutting my insides out, one stab at a time.
“Ms. Taylor, that’s the lock down alarm,” my student’s voice wavered.
“Get inside and get down.” I fumbled for my building keys, they mingled with my own inside my pocket. “Get inside and be quiet.” Terrified, confused, and beaten looks crossed the faces of each student brushing past me to get inside.
My heart pumped hard in my chest, blood rushing to my ears. “Go, get in, get down. Inside, now. Shhh, don’t talk, just get in and hide.”
WREE! WREE! WREE!
I held my breath as the last student came in. I had no thoughts before sticking my head outside the building and into the unknown. I grabbed two more students and ushered them inside. And then, one more; a boy who ran in. Two girls walked by without even noticing the alarm or suddenly empty courtyard.
WREE! WREE! WREE!
“Hey, ladies get inside, let’s go!” But they kept walking, ignoring my pleas. For a horrible moment, I debated the consequences of locking them out. I had thirty or more kids inside where I could keep them safe. But if I left, running after these girls, would I jeopardize more lives?
WREE! WREE! WREE!
A door opened across the courtyard, another teacher yelled to the seventh graders and they jogged inside.
I took one more look around before closing my door. With shaking hands, I locked door number one. If I could only be more confident about their ability to stay locked.
WREE! WREE! WREE!
The space between the outside courtyard and the inside of the band room was an entry, mostly for storage. There was an office door in this space and I was overcome with the sudden impulse to lock it. A window from inside the office looks into the classroom and it had no safety cover.
“I’m locked out.” A sixth-grade boy is trying to get into the classroom. But nobody is getting up to let him in. At first glance the classroom looks deserted. Someone has killed the lights and pulled the inside door closed.
“Give me one second.” I whispered. “It’s going to be okay. I have to lock this door first.” My brain goes to that dark corner once again. Two lives for thirty. If I didn’t lock the office door and someone saw them through the window. What would happen? Would a gunman shoot the kids? Would I be able to keep them safe? Two lives for thirty. Same numbers.
Door number two locked.
I smiled at the boy but it didn’t reach my eyes. My shaking hands and jagged breathing were sure to give me away. On the third try I got the inside door to the band room unlocked. The boy went in and tucked himself into a corner of the classroom, behind the instruments with his classmates.
I turned and immediately went about locking it behind me. I’d never practiced locking this type of door before. It was the first time I’d taken an assignment in the only classroom to have its own building.
But I did it.
Door number three locked.
“Is the back door locked?” An eighth-grade student whispered and pointed to the fourth door.
“I’m checking it now.” I mouthed back. I waved my arms willing them all to get down and hide. I shuffled through my memory of this door. There was no lock or button to press on the other side. There was no knob to twist. A student would simply pull to open it. But I hadn’t unlocked it today. Too many doors unlocked makes me nervous. I never unlocked it. It should be fine. We should all be fine.
I reached for the door and pushed.
I secured the privacy paper in front of the window. Then, we waited in silence.
I pulled out my phone and checked my email. I sat in the middle of the room between two doors against a wall. I tried to give the girls huddled in a corner a comforting look but I failed. In the recesses of my brain, I remembered reading that communication would be done via email. Check your work email.
I refreshed the page on my phone.
One of the kids was digging around for something. I shushed him quiet, snapping my fingers at him and threatening him with the same look my mother would give me as a child. He immediately stopped shuffling his papers.
At some point, the alarm had stopped ringing. I only noticed when my own heart beat was the only thing I could hear.
I checked my phone again. Why isn’t there an email?
Was I supposed to do the emailing? I couldn’t remember and my substitute packet was inside the office. Two locked doors away. It wasn’t safe.
A girl in the corner eyed me. Her brow was furrowed, eyes tearing up. Her girlfriend wrapped an arm around her. I tried to smile but couldn’t find it in me to let it touch my eyes. I was using all that energy willing someone to tell me what was going on.
They always tell teachers when there’s a drill. So that we can smile at the students and honestly tell them things will be okay. We’re told, in these quite moments of panic, the voice of reason reminds us that this was only a test.
No one had told me, and the panic voice was getting louder. It was screaming at me to check my email again. I wanted to double check the doors. My voice of reason was being washed out with every minute that ticked by.
The back door rattled.
Someone was trying to get in.
The sloshing in my ears picked up pace as I urged everyone to stay quiet and stay down.
Whoever was at the door left. They left and I should be able to breathe easier. But no one has emailed me.
The silence continues. I look up at the clock and realize that I have no idea what time class should have started. I don’t know how long we’ve been sitting here. It feels like forty minutes but it couldn’t have been more than six or seven.
Finally, someone is going to tell us what’s going on.
The lock down was only a drill.
I almost forget to listen to the rest of the announcement as my anxiety released in waves.
I love what I do. I’m a teacher, and I get to help educate the next generation. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done. I’d be lying if I said lock down drills didn’t trigger me. Because you see, I haven’t always been a teacher. I worked in law enforcement once upon a time. Where I had to make life and death decisions every day.
I have heard things that I wish I could forget. I have saved lives, and some, I couldn’t. In the midst of something that should have been routine, I felt like I was forced to make those same decisions again. I didn’t dwell on it, I rationalized. Two for thirty seemed like good numbers to me. Even when one of the two was my own number. I was trained to triage and help those I could. Never put anyone in extra danger when it can be avoided.
I know that it was only a test, but I didn’t know that at the time. Call it PTSD, call it whatever you like. Today I was rocked by something set up to keep students safe.
When I was in middle school, it seemed like we spent more time being bussed to the high school while our school was being bomb checked then we did in class. High school wasn’t much different. It didn’t help matters when one of the high school bathrooms was pipe bombed. Of course, this triggered memories of elementary school when someone did the same to one of the playground slides.
It’s disheartening that we live in a time where school shootings such as Columbine, Virginia Tech., Umpqua, Pilchuck High are such common place, we have drills to prepare students and teachers. There have been 142 school shootings alone since 2013.
I didn’t write this to preach at people, I wrote this as a sort of cathartic therapy for my own brain. To process what happened. To help me wake up tomorrow and go back to work, knowing full well that I can’t predict what will happen. Who will be pushed to the breaking point? I don’t live my life in fear. What kind of life would that be? But it doesn’t mean that it’s always easy either.
Next time you see a teacher, tell them thank you. I don’t think I ever said it enough as a student. I never appreciated what my own teachers risked for my safety until I became a teacher myself.