Five years ago, I was wrapping up my first year teaching third grade at Parkwood Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina. It seemed like any other day — I was running copies in the morning, going through social studies lessons about different winter holidays in the afternoon, wrangling kids from recess to the cafeteria to specials. Once the last child in my class got on the bus, I looked at my phone and saw a couple missed calls and a text from my younger brother.
“hey, are you okay? I love you”
I read the text and thought, Well this is both nice and strange.
Before I could even put my phone down, another teacher on my hallway came into my room and told me about what happened at Sandy Hook.
We spent some time together processing, reading some online news articles and checking Twitter feeds for more updated information before I had to pack up my stuff and go babysit for the evening. I didn’t have cable in my apartment, so when I put the kids to bed I turned on the television. I’m not a huge television watcher, but knowing what had happened in Massachusetts earlier in the day had me wanting to turn on the news.
Every single news channel flashed faces on the screen. Photos of families, love, and unity; children with their siblings, in soccer uniforms and dance gear and smiles.
I felt a deep, all-encompassing sadness. Tears welled in my eyes and barreled down my face as I wept silently for the 20 children and six educators who were gunned down in their own school.
“hey, are you okay? I love you” had a new meaning.
It meant that my brother, and many others in the world, realized that teaching is more than just disseminating content to children; it’s also keeping children safe at whatever cost.
I considered this during every lockdown drill my school ran after Sandy Hook. There were windows by the door coming into my classroom — how was I going to cover that up so people couldn’t see inside? My classroom was right next to an external door — how could I be sure that a random person from the outside wouldn’t just enter the building? Even after I left Parkwood, the thoughts still persisted.
In my second year teaching, I taught in an old building that was constructed in the 1960s. We had a lockdown drill and the lock didn’t work on my classroom door. The handle jiggled as I sat silently with my third graders lined up against the wall of my classroom library, and in an instant the police officer applied just enough pressure to push open the door. I stopped breathing and my heart skipped a beat. I closed my eyes to pause for a moment emotionally. I debriefed the situation with my kids, telling them that it was good to learn about the lock now rather than later, that the principal would have someone come out to fix my door as soon as possible. A student asked what would have happened if that wouldn’t have been a drill.
I explained that my top priority was their safety first, and then their education, that this is why we have drills — so we can practice what would happen in times of danger. We outlined the path where we would run if needed and where students could hide. I felt cracks form in my heart with every word I had to use to reply to their questions about their feelings of safety at school.
If that would have been reality, a duplication of Sandy Hook, a repeated Adam Lanza circumstance, I would have done everything in my power to keep my kids safe. I would have ushered them outside to the field, I would have fought with everything in me against any offender, I would shield those children with my life to keep them safe.
This is my first year out of a classroom and I still feel that way about all of my students who have graced my rosters in the last five years.
With the high number of school shootings and overall violence in the United States, the cracks in my heart continue to deepen knowing that children are entering school buildings where they may feel unsafe. It is my sincerest hope that we can make good, sound policy surrounding things like gun control and bullying so that kids can feel like school is a safe place, and it is my sincerest hope that we do not become numb to these happenings.