Love, Learning and Lockdowns

I came across an odd item on my teacher to-do list: bring in bungee cord.

I had hastily scribbled it down the week before. It took me a second to remember why I needed such an item for my job as a teacher—my school, like many across the country, was doing a lockdown drill. As school districts have modified their approach to safety in light of the horrific school shootings, my district has also encouraged the new “Run, Hide and Fight” practices. As part of those, we are taught to tie any kind of rope to the door to secure it more effectively.

Part of being an excellent teacher is being prepared. We are masters at preparation and for that matter, preparing our students for the future. It’s difficult, however, to prepare students for the possibility of violence, terror and mayhem. It’s not a job we want. It seems antithetical to our mission and the reason we became teachers in the first place.

How do I impart the needed knowledge and preparation without traumatizing my students? They were overflowing with questions and, yes, fear. As always, my sixth grade students amazed me with their thinking skills and ability to process the prospect of a school shooting.

Across the classroom, we pondered many questions: What if I am alone in the bathroom when it happens? Other questions spilled out, too. Do we get to throw things at the shooter? Can we jump out the window? Should we go in the closet or not? (Before I could respond, a leader in our classroom said “I will not! I heard some Kindergarten students did that and they all died!”)

On and on their questions and ideas catapulted into my classroom. Torn between thorough preparation and too much discussion of violence, I did my best. As I answered their questions, I had my own questions erupting inside me. I had all the practical, first level issues surface—and then deeper questions, troubling questions plagued my mind.

What if I had to choose fighting for our lives in the classroom or fleeing out our window? What if my decisions saved three-quarters of the class but one-quarter of them died? Given the worst case scenarios, that would still be considered a good thing, to save children. But how can you justify such fractions, such odds? It was like a nightmarish math word problem gone awry. For God’s sake, I’m not a first responder. Do I have the wherewithal and grace under pressure to save my students and confront terror?

All of these scenarios and previous anecdotes from shootings collided in my mind. It weighed heavy on me during a week that was supposed to be a celebration of love, not hate, not evil. I considered the irony of all this talk of death and fear and evil knowing that Valentine’s Day was coming. I couldn’t help but think that red was supposed to be a color of love on Valentine’s Day and in my mind, all I could think of was blood.

And then I saw the news.

It was Valentine’s Day and the horror occurred in Florida. As much as I tried to dismiss our lockdown drills and training as over-preparation and hysteria, I knew there would be another shooting. I just didn’t think it would be this week, on a day of love and my students sharing paper valentines.

I had begun to think of this brave new world of lockdown drills and active shooter training as a surreal, dystopian experience. I tried to ground myself this last week and search for ways for my kids to be kids. I wanted to teach about the power of love and hope and faith and kindness but instead I had to teach about fear, hate, and terror.

To make a point to eleven year olds, you have to be very literal. You have to describe the consequences of making too much noise in your classroom or not following directions during a shooting. You have to make it real. I wondered how these new trainings and exposure were contributing to a new reality. What world was I helping to create?

It haunted me then. It haunts me now.

One question that my students asked the other day came up with the recent tragedy. The student said, “What if the shooter is one of us? What if they know all the things we are going to do?”The thought had not occurred to me. I couldn’t answer that question. I said, “I am going to believe that there is no one like that in our classroom.” Of course, good teacher that I am, I had to play devil’s advocate: However, if there is anyone that is having those kinds of thoughts or issues or is really upset, let me know, let someone know, and we can help you.

Ah, the idealism of teachers. We can’t escape it. My subject area is English, and I fervently believe in the power of words. I cling to a few words I wrote down from a Christian Science Monitor article after Newtown every time I hear of a school shooting: “The best antidote is to embrace the opposite of these thoughts and feelings. These include empathy, calmness, mercy, hope and openness, all of which have as much substance to deter killings over time as do metal detectors in the moment.”

In many of the shootings, there were situations where many didn’t suspect what was in the heart and mind of the shooter; in many others, the warning signs were there. As teachers, we do our very best and then some to educate students and meet their needs, but we are human. We operate in very challenging, stressful conditions. Sometimes, we try and try and try and refer students to outside services to get help and it still isn’t enough. There are so many children that fall through the cracks that it makes our daily lives as teachers fraught with worry and discouragement. It follows us home.

As a society, we need to ask what is most important: Common Core Standards or standards of humanity and character? I’m not saying that critical reading and writing skills and math skills are unimportant. I believe in those skills and rigor as much as the next educator. I recognize a crisis, though, that takes precedence over these priorities.

After 12 years of teaching in a diverse bunch of schools and environments, I have observed the high anxiety and stress in our children building. We lack the extended resources to help these children and our schools and curriculum are sorely lacking in the areas most needed today: empathy, calmness, mercy, hope, openness.

Stop by my classroom any day. I won’t always score 100 percent on a teacher evaluation for exhibiting every standard, objective, strategy, instructional outcomes, data, formative assessments, summative assessments, state testing scores or the plethora of other evaluative criteria foisted on teachers today in our very ponderous teaching evaluation system. I can’t focus on every piece of minutiae that I’m asked to demonstrate because I’m in a war. I’m fighting for our future and I’m fighting hopelessness and terror.

Tonight, I will force myself to read about the shooting in Florida. I’ll cry. I’ll be overcome with sadness and despair. I’ll say a prayer for all those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the community and hope that I don’t have any nightmares. And I will wake up to a new day, believing that something I do matters, that good will overcome evil, that light will overcome the darkness, that we can impact the future.

That is my common core. Those are my standards.


Em Powers Hunter is a writer and an educator whose writing has appeared in over 50 publications, including the Washington Post, Huffington Post, USA Today and the Christian Science Monitor.