Who do you want on the opposite side of that door?
by Mr. Sheehy
This reflection follows a gun scare and lockdown at Central High School on Tuesday, April 17, 2007. I wrote it for myself, but also as a contribution to a blog my students and I created to share our stories. It is also posted there.
Hear me read what follows.
I have a habit of mentally rehearsing the future. While I rehearse many yet-to-occur scenarios, for some reason I especially enact conflict and crisis events. Maybe these abstractions are the habit of an active imagination, and maybe it’s a guy thing, but for all my knowledge, maybe everyone does this and, like me, has never talked about it.
I’m talking now, and I admit I’ve always done this. One time, at elementary age, I recall trying to sleep but failing because the prospect of our house burning down was consuming me. What if? What would I do? Would I be able to get out in time? Apparently I decided I would have very limited time, because I climbed out of bed and dressed completely, finally able to sleep with the reassurance that I’d be dressed and ready to run when the smoke detector screeched.
You’d think that 25 years later I’d have calmed down, but I can explain exactly each action I plan to take when my apartment catches fire, say the next time my basement neighbor leaves his stove-top on. (For a slow-burner, where I get to work down the priority list of things to grab, the plan becomes amusing – it involves ripping my entire computer off the wall and running with it, knowing that I’ll never be as good about backing up family pictures as I wish I would be.)
Not surprisingly, then, as a teacher, I have rehearsed numerous times the scenario of a gunman entering our school, and I act daily according to my plan – always, always having my keys in my pocket, noting to myself when I’m near a substitute, knowing where I’ll go for help when I’m in a room to which I have no key. And when our principal called for a lockdown during a passing period, which I was convinced was not a drill, I did what I’d rehearsed – I ran. Granted, I ran to the wrong room – the consequence of being a traveling teacher – but I corrected myself before anyone knew.
That little error foretold more than I realized. In my head in the years leading up to Tuesday, I was able to be the teacher parents would want with their children in a time of crisis. Prepared, practical, calm, and loving. But despite the years of rehearsal, this lockdown did not go like I thought it would.
Maybe my plan was too precise and reality inevitably broke script. Or maybe I am a whole lot more human and prone to mistakes than my little prophecy foretold.
Whatever the cause, the discrepancy exposed itself instantly. I shuffled students into my room with speed, but despite my conviction that we were not practicing, somewhere in my mind, I didn’t think of it as any different than drills. A friend of my latecomers was coming with them and asked if she could stay with them. I guess in my mind I categorized this with the dozens of exchanges just like it that I have each year – a student wants to go somewhere other than where he is supposed to go, and I deny him the opportunity and send him on his way. Plus, I have it drilled into my head not to worry about students who aren’t in my room during a lockdown – say if one of mine is in the bathroom – because security guards’ top priority is to sweep for them and take them to the library.
So I told her that the security would take her to the library. And I closed the door. And she was out there.
When the door latched clicked, reality clicked. I threw it back open but she was gone.
What on earth had I done? My students, who were not yet convinced the lockdown was real, began teasing me about this girl getting shot because of me, but I couldn’t laugh it off. I still can’t laugh it off. I am too ashamed.
I told this gal’s friend how foolish I felt and asked him to tell her how much I wanted to give her a hug of apology. Two days later, she sought me out and told me not to worry about it and I apologized myself and thanked her for her graciousness.
But I am still ashamed.
Sixty seconds into the crisis I’ve rehearsed a hundred times, and I’d already proven how fallible I am. More proof followed quickly.
I consider myself a decent teacher (that’s why I’m in the business), and one of the areas where I am confident is basic classroom management. That doesn’t mean I run what is considered a “tight ship,” but that I am able to craft and manage an atmosphere in the classroom intentionally, so that I usually mean for it to be the way it is. But here’s my trick: keep students occupied. If they’re busy, how can they misbehave?
So when I am locked with students in the dark for more than three hours doing nothing, how do I keep them quiet? I didn’t know, so I hushed them and hushed them and hushed them. And then I hushed them some more. I’m convinced that if we’d had a gunman in the school, I would have had to play husher the entire time.
But I’m not frustrated with my students over that. In my mental mock-up, I imagined students would know the importance of being quiet and would follow my prompting to do so. But I forgot to account for the various ways people react under stress. Some cry, some fidget, and some talk. Just like the people who prattle their tongues out on a first date though they normally listen so well, I had a few students who could not seem to control themselves. And I didn’t know how to control them either. Fallible human episode #2.
My list of fallible moments extends too far for one article and anyone’s patient reading. Have I ever had to pee so badly? Why did it take me until we reached the Civic Center to realize that when the authorities wanted a list of my students, they didn’t want me to email it to them, but to write it down with pencil and paper?
As we walked to the Civic Center holding each other’s shoulders, I recognized a few parents who were watching us – for some reason they had been allowed inside the outer perimeter. I thought to myself, is it a comfort for them to see me? If there kids had been with me, would they be relieved? Whom would they want on the inside of that classroom door?
I know the importance of that feeling not just from being a father, but from being on the inner side of the door. Many have defined the moment the SWAT team opened the door to their classrooms as the instant their anxiety overcame them – from there, they could barely function. It wasn’t that way for me, but not because I am strong or comfortable around highly armed men. I was standing by the door when an assistant principal knocked, and I opened it before he finished identifying himself. And the first thing I saw was a friend.
“John!” I exclaimed.(I’ve changed his name here.) “Good to see you.”
“Hey, Geoff,” he responded with a smile, and then he began instructing my students about what they should do. I don’t remember seeing Mr. Murphey, the assistant principal, but I can tell you that the soccer jersey John was wearing under his SWAT gear was blue and white, and that he had probably been dressed to coach his son’s game that afternoon. I hadn’t known what I wanted as I waited by that door, primed to open it at the first syllable, but as soon as I saw John, a guy I know to be an incredibly capable cop and kind man, I knew he was what I wanted to see.
Looking back, I am sorry I was not the person behind the door that my students’ parents would have wanted. But I hope that having gone through this in reality grows me as a teacher in ways my simple mental mock-ups and school-wide drills never could. I made mistakes Tuesday – including some I haven’t mentioned here. May I grow out of those mistakes and into the teacher parents want behind the door when their kids are locked in.