The summer before the Columbine shootings, I worked at a middle school. Our French teacher was taking a leave of absence, and we scheduled a full day of interviews. Positions for French teachers were scarce, so we had lots of applicants.
Two stand out, even today.
One because she didn’t really speak French. She did, however, affect a decent French accent when we asked her about her own proficiency with the language.
The other, more promising, asked an odd question as we wrapped things up. She asked where her classroom would be if she were hired. Of course we couldn’t give an answer as clear as “Oh you will spend your entire teaching career in room 100.” But she persisted. We talked a bit longer, until the real question came out. She wondered how close her room would be to an exterior door. Her husband was a violent man. They were separating. She was worried. Back then we didn’t lock all the doors the way we do now. But that woman’s story raised the hairs in the back of my neck. We couldn’t hire her. We couldn’t put our school at risk, no matter how fine a teacher she may have been.
Over the years crisis planning became a science. FBI agents taught us (and the police) how to spot those whose behavior might pose a risk. Psychiatrists and psychologists warned us to watch the loners, the ones preoccupied with violence, the ones who might be bullied. We learned what a crisis team ought to do, assembled plans, and practiced lock downs and evacuations.
Those lock down drills always gave me the creeps. It was my job to walk the building during the drill and be sure that no child could be seen or heard from the hallways. The same hallways that, on any other day, would be buzzing with activity. The silence during those drills was very different from the silence when I worked late at night, alone.
But when we really faced those crisis moments, it was scary. At that same school, a long-time teacher once asked me if I ever thought of wearing a bulletproof vest. Another day, I learned that my name topped a hit list drawn up by a tragically troubled child…a child who took his own life at a young, young age. I sat with parents who feared violence at the hands of their own children. I sat with parents and police, when we knew that the parents had done horrible things. I met fathers freshly released from prison. I calmed hysterical mothers, at the end of their rope. I stood face to face with rage.
All the grad school in the world didn’t teach me to handle those situations.
But hear this. Hear it plain and loud and clear: My experience is not unique.
At each and every school in America, teachers and principals face a microcosm of our culture every day. It is hopeful and horrifying all at once. Today, little children in Newtown, Connecticut woke up with joy and went into classrooms with teachers who loved them. At this very moment, their parents are surely shaking in horror and grief as officials piece together what on earth has happened.
Yesterday those same parents were probably at Target, finishing up Christmas and Hanukkah shopping. They hurried to wrap presents and hide them under the bed. They bundled up the kids for the evening concert at Sandy Hook Elementary.
This afternoon, our President spoke with a catch in his voice. Many voices call for gun control. There will surely be some outcry about the state of education in general, and who knows what else. Some parents will debate whether to home school. Others may succumb to the temptation to politicize this tragedy, and to somehow fit it into “us vs. them.” I hope not, but I fear it will happen.
Instead, let’s say a prayer for the innocent lives lost, for families everywhere that are doing the best they can, and for the folks in the school down the street from where you live.