I remember having fire drills as a kid. A couple of times I even remember having to kneel in the hallway, head tucked between my knees, during a tornado warning. None of us took it very seriously. We giggled and squirmed, making faces at one another, while the teachers hushed us in unison. It always felt more like a game than a drill.
There were a couple of times as a part-time teacher I marched outside with my class during a fire drill. The girls grabbed purses and cell-phones, worried someone might steal from them while we weren’t in the classroom. Groups of kids whispered sighs of relief that they didn’t have to finish a test or lesson, while teachers radioed back to the principal that all of their kids were counted. The overall mood was informal and quite whimsical. Then the bell would ring, calling us back inside. Those moments, instead of feeling like a game to me, it felt more like an unwelcome distraction, taking away from precious class instruction.
But one morning I experienced a completely different type of drill, an all school lock down. There was no warning bell or hint of rehearsal. In fact, it happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to think. My job was to quickly gather my small group of music students into one of the instrument storage rooms and lock the door. We packed ourselves tightly inside the windowless room, instruments stacked on shelves reaching from the floor to the ceiling. The students sat cross-legged on the floor, huddled together silently, while I stood against the locked metal door. Outside the room I could hear muffled sounds of feet in the hallway and the sound of pounding on classroom doors. Someone was trying to be let in, pretending to be a shooter, but it was my job to ignore all attempts of intrusion until we were given the go-ahead by the police that it was safe to return to the classroom.
I knew it was a drill, yet my stomach was in knots. My eyes burned looking at all of the bent heads of my middle school students. There was no doubt that if this had not been a drill, I would have done everything in my power to protect them. This felt like the safest room on the whole campus, but I couldn’t help wonder where in the building my oldest daughter might be, which class was she hiding, which friends were by her side and was that teacher feeling just as pained and protective as I was in that moment.
None of the students said a word or moved. There were no annoyed looks or buzzing of whispers. It was eerily still. This was clearly not a game.
After Friday’s tragedy in Newtown Connecticut, all I could think about was that drill, that unsettling moment when lives of your children were in my care, making the news all that more poignant.
It’s clear to me, now more than ever, that we need to take better care of our educators. We not only want them to prepare our children for college and careers, but we also want them to teach valuable social skills. Our hope is that the teachers in our children’s lives inspire and encourage. But most of all, our teachers don’t just prepare our children for their futures, some of them make sure they have a future at all.