I am at my classroom door. I reach for my key, unlock the door, prop it open, and turn the key again. Open, but locked. I stand at my door, look up inside the frame, and pause, for the most important step.
I reach for the anti-latch device and flip it sideways. It keeps the door slightly ajar when closed, so neither my students nor I get locked out during the day. If a threat is identified, I can quickly flip the bar without stepping into the hall, close my pre-locked door, and go into emergency mode.
Done. We are safe. Ready for another day.
This morning, we will review French verb conjugations.
It is 7:45 on a Wednesday morning.
When did securing my high school classroom against a gun-wielding intruder become daily routine? Did we begin building our layers of defense after the fifth school shooting? After Columbine? Or Pilchuck High, seventeen miles east of us? I no longer remember. According to the superintendent of Public Instruction’s Weapons in Schools Report during the 2015-16 school year in Washington state, there were ninety-two reported incidents involving guns or firearms on school premises, transportation systems, or school facilities.
I can remember a time when I would not have given a thought to a student I didn’t know walking up the hall in a bulky coat. Now when I see a boy in a trench coat striding toward my room, I watch, suddenly alert, make a split-second assessment of intent, and even when assured of the child’s harmless cloak of machismo, I sometimes close my door.
When I spot a backpack abandoned in the hall on a Friday after school, I look around. I hesitate, wagering the probability of ill-intent, before I pick it up and deliver it to Lost and Found. (The US military calls this the OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, act.) The human mind is adept at forming new neural pathways for survival. We quickly forget the way things used to be.
* * *
A dirt trail used to meander through the woods near my house, crossing a stand of seventy-year-old Douglas fir. When the trail was widened to accommodate bikes, the firs were cut to the roots and graveled over. I tried to save them. After the trail crew tied pink plastic ribbons around the trunks, tagging them for demolition, I pulled the markers off, hoping to spare a few. But it was beyond my control. Few remember the trees that once stood—the former peace of the place.
* * *
There is profit to be made—in guns, in violence, and in fear. No grenades dropping on our schools, workplaces, and churches, but news releases of shootings and lists of casualties that hit like bombshells. The US guns and ammunition industry generated an estimated revenue of sixteen billion dollars in 2015 alone. The NRA and affiliated organizations’ 2016 revenue was $433.9 million.
Now when I see a boy in a trench coat striding toward my room, I watch, suddenly alert, make a split-second assessment of intent, and even when assured of the child’s harmless cloak of machismo, I sometimes close my door.
My grandfather, who grew up hunting in the arctic region of Tanana, Alaska, in the early decades of the twentieth century, had been a proud member of the NRA. In the 1970s, he realized that the organization no longer existed to promote hunter safety, but had embraced a larger agenda to protect rights for handgun and automatic weapon ownership. “Those guns are only used to hunt people,” Grampa told me, while pulling his camouflage-brown throw over his lap. That year, he dropped his membership.
When once I cried for innocent children gunned down, after Sandy Hook, I sank into a well of despair, numb with battle fatigue.
Our superintendent assured the community that the district would be taking steps to provide up-to-date active-shooter training for the staff, and install more security devices. State legislators are advocating for arming teachers.
There is profit to be made in making us feel safe—alert systems, surveillance cameras, alarms, remote locks, window shields, bulletproof backpacks, fingerprint recognition systems. Product reviews. Security firms. Consultants. Safe at school. School safe.
IHS Technology, a research company, estimated that security measures spent by schools and universities might rise to $907 million in 2016. These are considered necessary expenditures by often cash-strapped school systems, for which they must divert money from other educational needs.
* * *
The middle school was built over a wetland of sedge, slender rush, reed, ninebark, and Nootka rose. The area was surveyed and cordoned off, and then drained, bulldozed, leveled, and covered with concrete. They named the school for the dislocated birds. Twenty years later, children pass through the doors of a school built before they were born. They cannot imagine morning mist over the bulrush, the smell of wild rose in May, or the slow flap of herons that nested there. They shout, skip, and file in, ignorant of the way things used to be.
* * *
Over twenty years of teaching, I have stretched to keep up with change, hop-scotching from blackboard to whiteboard, from overhead to PowerPoint to Chrome collaboration. I have learned to recognize the syntax switch of a Wikipedia copy/paste, to spot camouflaged earbuds in long hair and hoodies, intercept test question texts, and have grown accustomed to background checks, bag searches, and police cars on campus. I have been trained to administer EpiPens, report suspicion of child abuse, refer for drug intervention, and assess for concussions. Change is to be expected. The future, faced head-on. Freedom, revered. The Second Amendment, sacred. Capitalism, rewarded. School security, a priority. I falter, unbalanced, no longer sure of the direction of the path we are on.
* * *
The American Academy of Pediatrics has defined gun violence as a public health epidemic. Firearm-related deaths are one of the top three causes of death of American youth. According to its 2017 website, for children five to fourteen years of age, firearm suicide rates were eight times higher, and death rates from unintentional firearm injuries were ten times higher in the United States than in other high-income countries. The AAP concludes, “The absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-injuries in children and adolescents.” In my rural county, more than thirty percent of families have guns in or around the home.
Twenty years later, children pass through the doors of a school built before they were born. They cannot imagine morning mist over the bulrush, the smell of wild rose in May, or the slow flap of herons that nested there.
The only thing to do with my despair is to act. I support organizations working for common-sense gun ownership: regulated licensing for transfer and sale, universal background checks and waiting periods, mental health restrictions, concealed-carry laws, Gun-Free Zones, assault weapons bans, gun safety education, and trainings regarding storage and locks. I mutter the nouns patience, persistence, and hope, like a mantra.
* * *
Fire drills, earthquake drills, and now lockdown drills. I know that statistically, we are safer at school than on a city street. I tell that to my students, but they read the news. Every year more than 3,600 kids die from gun violence in the United States. I don’t think they believe me.
On the December morning that we have our lockdown drill, I review the protocol with my students. We talk about closing doors, windows, and blinds, and finding a safe place in a room. Which wall would provide the best protection? Where could they sit unseen from someone outside, or in the hall? I try not to cause undue distress. I don’t want to frighten them. It is, after all, a drill.
But the teens do not smile. They crouch, hugging the farthest wall, one curled into a ball. You can talk softly, I assure them, while we wait for the “all clear” sign. You can read a book or do homework. But they remain grim. Anxiety clings to them, like winter frost.
The signal sounds and we move back to our seats. I walk to the door to perform my routine: open it, check the lock, and flip the anti-latch device. I stifle my rage and carry on. Fingers crossed, I push fears away and concentrate on the lesson for the day.
“Today we will review the verb esperer. To wait and to hope.”