“Be gentle with yourselves today.”
These were the words I sent with my third-period students today as class ended. We’d been through a lot together.
A little over an hour earlier, as second period dismissed for break — a quick 15-minutes when students can get a snack, go outside for some fresh air, or hang out in the student lounge — the lockdown alarm sounded.
I was in a nearby office and jumped up, remembering there was a student who liked to hang in my classroom during break. As I quickly crossed the short distance from the office to my classroom, I saw our principal running down the hall.
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I felt a sense of doom — I’d already known this was not a drill. This was real. But seeing our principal at a sprint, I knew it was serious.
Students ran by to their classrooms, chaos in a time when students are unaccounted for, relaxing, unguarded.
Students were gathered, then classroom doors were slammed shut and locked. I reached my classroom, found my student, and double-checked the halls for any unclaimed students.
Then protocol: Lock the door. Close the blinds. Turn the lights off. Shove the table in front of the door. Students under the desk carousel.
While I put the classroom into lockdown, the ominous, robotic alarm was sounding: “This is a lockdown.” I wondered if we would hear gunshots.
As we sat in my classroom in silence, hunched under the computers, we waited.
We heard running — some heavy footsteps down the hall, high heels clicking frantically. We waited.
I checked my phone, hoping for some kind of email or text with information. Then the alarm went silent. Everything was silent. There was no more running, no more “this is a lockdown”.
After what seemed like forever, but in actuality was about 10 minutes, our principal made an announcement. We were to stay under lockdown, but the threat was not on our campus, roaming our halls, but rather on the road that runs in front of our campus. Later, we found out there had been a police chase that led them towards our school on foot.
The removal of threat from campus felt huge. Lights could come on. We could talk again, breathe a sigh of relief that this time hadn’t been The Time — the time that all those who exist in public spaces, especially schools, wait for: the shooting, the time that gun violence pervades our safe spaces.
While students grapple with a fear they don’t quite understand but are asked to face nonetheless, teachers are burdened by their charge: Is today the day we’re asked to protect these children in the face of unimaginable violence?
For 30 minutes, we sat in Shelter In Place mode. I got out Bananagrams after a student confessed this sort of event often triggered panic attacks. We played a few rousing hands, as they handily defeated me, and talked while we played — anything to put off the consideration of what could have been.
After awhile, the All Clear tone rang, and we were able to resume our schedules. My other third-period students wandered in, some with tear-stained faces. They’d found sanctuary in the classroom closest to the lounge, where they’d been relaxing when the alarm sounded. I hugged them. We talked and abandoned the lesson plan on thesis statements to talk about what had happened, and then to play some punctuation bingo (at their request, I swear!).
And as class came to a close, and they prepared to go face the rest of the day, I spoke to them.
I told them that whatever they were going to feel, as they left and the adrenaline wore off, to be gentle with themselves. It was normal to feel scared and exhausted after you’d faced the unknown like we had. They nodded.
This wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last. But every time it happens, I can’t help but think: it doesn’t have to be this way. Our kids don’t have to grow up with this terror. Our teachers don’t have to worry about how they’re going to protect lives. We have the power to change this. If only we would.
Katie Mgongolwa is a high school teacher in Durham. You can reach her at email@example.com.