Secure the school

The text message said “Kids’ school on lockdown shooter on the loose” and all the blood immediately drained out of my lips, my hands, my feet. I read it again. The blood pounded in my ears which was odd because I could feel it leaving my face.

I was in my office at school and some instinct told me I was not well, I needed help. I stood up and walked into the hallway. No one was there. Everyone was in class. I weaved towards the stairwell. Andrew found me. Sweet crazy Andrew who last year in Grade 9 English had discovered graphic novels and figured out allegory all on his own. Andrew who brought me that novel and said, “Miss, I really think that this bear and these lions mean something else.” Andrew who could see beyond the page to discover the unexpected. Andrew saw me. He saw beyond the teacher. His eyes widened in alarm and he ran to my side. “Miss, are you ok?”

No. There’s a shooter.

No, I’m not ok. There’s a shooter in my children’s school.

No.

Finally, “No,” I said out loud.

Poor Andrew, gawky Andrew who had grown inches over the summer, put his hand on my arm. “What should I do?”

“I think I need a grown up” was all I could manage.

Andrew said, “I think you need to stay with me. Come on, Ms Potts.” He grasped my upper arm and led me gently not to the nearest classroom but, he later told me, to the nearest teacher he trusted. He knocked respectfully and when the teacher came to the door he said, “Ms Potts is not ok.”

I was not ok. My colleague came forward and my legs gave out.

I don’t remember much after that.

I was in my office. My colleague was there. She was giving me water.

I was in one of the good chairs. The principal was there. I was telling him about the shooter. No, he said, no, no shooter in a school. My phone. I showed them my phone. They saw the message.

They checked the computer. Yes, there had been a shooting. Someone was dead. I couldn’t breathe. Near the school, it was near the school.

It was not in the school. I could breathe a little. I took little breaths, I was gasping. “Breathe!” said my colleague. “Breathe.”

I breathed. I could breathe. I could hear. Shooting. Monument. Went towards Parliament Hill. How many shooters? Where were they? Not in the school not in the school not in the school. The voices told me not in the school not in the school not in the school. I could breathe a little. I could hear again.

I started to cry. I am crying as I write this, years later. I cried and then I breathed. My hands were trembling, no, shaking. My fingers were white. My chest ached for breath.

I sat there for a long time as we made sense of what was going on. The reports were unclear, hurried, breathless. But none of them mentioned a school. No shooter was in the school.

Our office was crowded, crowded. I needed to walk. I walked. The Vice Principal, the curmudgeon not the kind one, saw me. “Come in, come in,” he hustled me into his office.

“Why are you so upset?” he barked. He does not like upset; he does not like tears.

“My children,” I said. “Their school is on lockdown,” I said. “A shooting,” I said, “only one kilometer away.”

“Nonsense,” he growled. “None of our schools are on lockdown.”

“But this one is, this one…”

He was impatient. He does not approve of overreaction. He believes in data, in facts. “What makes you think that?”

The text. I told him about the text, the news.

He bristled, “News media.” Harumph, grumble, growl. “Let’s review the facts here, Amanda. There are facts.” He turned his computer screen toward me. “This is the Board’s current status of schools. You can see as well as I can that no schools are on lockdown.”

I was getting a little angry at him. His stupid growling voice. His insistence that he was right and I was wrong.

“I see that, but I actually don’t believe it,” I snarled back.

“Ridiculous.” His pronouncement seemed final. Then he looked at me, almost unable to understand that I would not believe the screen in front of me, “Hold on.” He picked up the phone and called someone. “Are any of our schools on lockdown?” he barked. “No?” He looked directly at me. “Ok, thank you.” He hung up.

“There. Now, use your head. The public, the media, they don’t know what ‘lockdown’ means. They think everything is a lockdown. ‘Lockdown! Lockdown!’ It makes a good story. It scares everyone. Look at you!” He was on a roll. “You know better. We have levels! We have plans! Here, for example, at our school we’re on ‘shelter in place.’ Does a reporter know what that means? No! No, and they don’t care. They write “lockdown” and everyone goes to pieces. Your children’s school is on “secure the school.” They are safe. You need to calm down.”

He paused for a breath. I was getting angry. I needed to calm down? *I* needed to calm down? To calm down! I felt my jaw set. Energy coursed through my veins. I was just about to say something rash when he interrupted again. AGAIN. He is always interrupting. Oooh… that man.

“Now. Have you eaten lunch? Can you teach next period? Because if you’re not going to teach, I need to get someone to cover for you.” He was no longer looking directly at me. He slid his eyes over and sneaked a peek at me. He waited.

I was mad and then I started to laugh. I was still a little freaked out, but I was no longer in shock. I’d seen the school status, I’d heard the phone conversation, I knew he was right – and he’d managed to get my blood pumping again. I thought about my Grade 9 class. I thought about how scared they might be right now – the news had shooters running all over Ottawa, though later we would learn that there was only one. I knew my room would be safe for them, and I knew we could talk about it. I took a deep breath and said, “Yes. Yes, I can teach.”

I stood up to leave, started to walk out, turned and said, “Thank you.”

He nodded, already distracted by the computer screen, “They’re fine, Amanda. They are completely safe and fine.” And he went back to work – and, carefully, so did I.

My children were fine. They were more than fine. Their amazing teachers, a mere one kilometer from a shooting that rocked Canada, carried on without telling the kids what was happening. The kids came home from school saying things like, “Guess what? We got to watch a movie today!” They didn’t have a care in the world. I hope that I can have their teachers’ strength in the midst of a crisis.  I wrote their teachers and support staff a thank you note. It wasn’t nearly enough.

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Slice of Life, Day 20, March 2018

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.

 

 

Lockdown

We knew it was coming that day. Fire drills and practice lockdowns are covertly scheduled on the teacher calendar as “Admin days” so that we know not to plan guest speakers or tests on those particular days. And since we’re in a cold climate, we do the fire drills one-two-three in the fall before the weather changes. That means that the remaining Admin Day is for a lockdown. So lockdown practice is no shock: the only question is which period will be disrupted. Since we’d made it to last period, we knew the answer to that, too.

My colleague Margie and I shared a prep period, so we had to decide where to spend the lockdown. The English office is in what used to be a photography suite. The front room where we have our desks looks ordinary enough, but there’s a regular rabbit’s warren of rooms attached to it:  near the back, a little coat closet where we also store our DVD collection; off to one side, a large-ish half-empty room where we keep the printer, extra supplies and the shared Chromebooks; next to that, crowded with books, a refrigerator, a tiny desk and a phone, a mini room, and through the mini-room the former dark room, which now serves as a kitchen. We glanced around as the class bell sounded – the coat closet was too small, the printer room too bare, but the kitchen was just right: far from the door, dark, hard for anyone to access.

We set up quickly, dragging in two chairs, our laptops, and some grading. We made ourselves a cup of tea. After all, lockdowns can take a long time. The admin team goes door to door releasing everyone on all three floors of the school. Classrooms get released first, usually from the basement upwards; teachers’ offices on the second floor aren’t a high priority. Sure enough, a few minutes into our preparations, the PA blared about the lockdown and we went into the kitchen, closing the office door, the mini-room door, and the kitchen door behind us.

We settled in. First, we discussed when we should “get small.” Obviously we were supposed to turn off the lights and be silent for the whole time, but this seemed like overkill; we were three doors away from the hallway, snug in our cozy kitchen. We decided to turn the lights off but chatted amiably in the darkness – her family, my family, our classes, plans for the upcoming break. After a nice long conversation, we realized that we would probably be released soon, so we stopped talking in case an administrator came in. We knew that we shouldn’t have our laptops out but, we chuckled, “better to ask forgiveness than permission,” and opened them up. For a while we worked away in companionable silence. Finally, one of us suggested that since we were already breaking one rule, and since we really were very well hidden, we could probably get away with turning on the light so we could grade. We would keep our ears open and snap the light off before an administrator came in. So we started to grade.

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We are English teachers. We had a lot to grade.

I finished up my tea and thought about making another. It was nearly silent all around us. This has been an incredibly productive lockdown, I thought, just as I registered my previous thought. “Nearly silent.” NEARLY? Wait a second. I looked at Margie.

Did you hear a toilet flush?”

“Yes. We’re right next to the girls’ bathroom,” she replied nonchalantly, focused on a creative writing piece.

Wait…Wait… She looked up. “Wait a second. Who’s flushing the toilet during a lockdown?”

My eyes darted around the room. “How long have we been in here? Does it seem like a long time?” I checked my watch. I nearly shrieked, “Margie! We’ve been in here for nearly an hour!”

“But no one has come! There was no-end-of-lockdown announcement. We would have heard.”

“But I heard the toilet flush.”

We looked at each other in complete confusion. “What should we do?”

We slowly turned the handle on the kitchen door. The mini room was still dark, the door still closed, but light seeped through the crack at the bottom. Surely we had turned off the office light? I crept out of the kitchen and reached for the phone. Quick as I could, I dialed the secretary: “Cindy? It’s Amanda,” I whispered, “Is the lockdown over? Margie and I are hiding in the English kitchen.”

At first there was dumbfounded silence. Then hysterical laughter. When Cindy caught her breath, we learned that the lockdown had ended about 40 minutes earlier. Our new vice principal didn’t know about the crazy English office layout. She checked the main room then moved on. And there’s no PA in the back rooms, so we missed the announcement, too. We just hung out in the kitchen and graded right through it all, uninterrupted by the normal hurly burly of the high school. The VP apologized over and over; the principal stopped by to apologize, too. Our colleagues were vaguely horrified: “You were stuck in there for an hour? Oh, how awful!” Margie and I tried to be graceful, to look appropriately put out, to pretend that we had been bored or worried, but really, that was the best – and only – productive lockdown I’ve ever experienced. 

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Slice of Life, Day 19, March 2018

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.