Every person in the room is crammed into a corner, muffling giggles and whispers. My arms are out wide, Stretch Armstrong-style, as I attempt to cover the third grade bodies with what appears to be a self-made Super Safe Teacher Forcefield. I realize what a ridiculous, yet natural, act this is when faced with a lock-down drill at school. We hunker down, blinds drawn and backs toward the outside door. After several minutes, a small voice says, “Mrs. Blair, I hear talking next door. It sounds like their doing a project in a group. Do they know we’re supposed to be quiet during a drill?” Hmmm….
Two more minutes pass. No “all clear” from the loud speaker. No sounds of doors being checked outside our room. Another little voice sounds from the underbelly of the pig pile, “Um…um…Mrs. Blair? Is that your phone over there? When we heard the alarm I thought I heard it coming from your phone.”
All color drains from my face. I slowly turn and zero in on my iPhone, which is plugged into our class sound system. Walking through molasses, I approach a potentially embarrassing discovery. There was an Amber Alert. On my phone. It was plugged into the microphone. It blasted through our room. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the lock-down alarm sounded so different this time. Our principal had hinted there might such a drill that week, so I was obviously on Def-Con 5. I glanced over at my class, who were trying to decide if I was going to laugh or cry, and little smiles erupted over the entire group. Our laughter didn’t stop for several seconds as we scrambled back to our seats. Even within this little bungled drill, my heart still fell a little at the thought of having to do this procedure for real…when my teacher forcefield would be of no use.
I never thought my own school would be ground zero for this kind of tragedy simply because I taught elementary school. The massacre at Sandyhook turned any dismissal of danger into something real and possible. A smaller town. An accessible entrance to a building. A troubled, desperate young man. The unfathomable was slowly turning on its axis to become unbelievably possible. With every breaking news story of sorrow and horror, my reaction is always the same. When these reports of violence somehow sneak into my school inbox or are retrieved by text (Just making sure you’re okay from my husband with news of the latest shooting) the balled up mass of anger and heartbreak churning in my insides turns as I put on my all things are normal face and turn to my class. It is a fear, of course, of the inconceivable happening in your own smallish town, but also an intense worry that these little humans in front of me will go on to live in a world where it isn’t unusual for this kind of heinous crime to occur. It’s also disturbing to find myself scanning their small faces for traces of impending anguish and future despair. Are any of these children capable of veering so far in the wrong direction that they would bolt into a crowded lunchroom and open fire? I’d like to say that I just don’t see it, but the truth is that every year I have a child with the weight of the world on his 8-year-old shoulders that I can’t help but picture snapping his very spirit. Adult problems, circumstances, and misconduct can seep into everyone in a family home, even when it seems children are too young to ingest such darkness. This darkness reveals itself in small ways within a elementary school classroom and it is natural to wonder where the edge will be in their adolescent years. Will it manifest into another news story that causes us to sadly state that “I always thought there was something going on there” ?
I truly believe our mission to decrease the violence comes down to paying attention. There is so much going on in harried, tech-centered, overbooked lives that the obvious (and most important) part of the day can easily be missed. Checking in. Checking in to see how the stress level is moving along…asking questions when your child shuts down with sadness and disappointment…turning off the devices and having face time at the kitchen table…using phrases like “I know this hurts right now, but you’ll get through it and we will help you” and “I’m here whenever you need me”. Schools are not exempt from stepping in and making thoughtful and strategic preparations for dealing with the overwhelmed and under-resourced. If we paid as nearly as much attention to the mental health of our high schoolers as we do to teaching standards and assessments, I feel there would be significant change. It needs to be made clear that we value their overall well-being as much as their academic achievement. It is so easy to say that its the parents’ job to take care of this end of it and educating kids is simply what we do, but the truth of it is: it ain’t happenin’ in many homes. Sadly, it is up to the people who spend the majority of time with these kids to heighten our observations of what it truly going on.
The morning after a recent shooting rocked our state, I woke with a unwieldy heaviness in my heart. I thought about the parents who would be waking this morning to a new life–one with loss and anger and bottomless grief. There would be endless questions and guilt and regret. As a community of parents, teachers, administrators, friends and leaders when will we see how far this madness has gone? It’s shocking to me that I don’t feel the surprise or disbelief anymore upon hearing of the latest tragedy in a school hallway. It physically pains me to think about the parents and children who are going on their merry way, unbeknownst of the absolute terror that could be dropping down in their community with one act of violence. I’ve got two teenagers. I have a class full of sweethearts who rely on me for safety. I have a classroom that sits yards from the high school behind us. I try not to “go there” when going about my day, but these crime scenes seem to creep into my conscience at faster rates every year. It’s time to admit the gravity of this situation in our country. It’s time to collectively hold the mental health of our kids tightly in our hands, no matter who or where we are.