My keychain is heavy. It holds the keys to three separate classrooms, and a technology cabinet filled with expensive gadgets that help make my lessons more fun and entertaining. The largest key on the ring is my lockdown key. It’s held onto the keychain with a conspicuous red loop. That makes it visible, so if the unthinkable were to happen I wouldn’t be fumbling around looking for it, wasting valuable seconds that could mean lives saved — children’s lives saved.
I teach composition classes at a small college near where I live in South Florida, and it’s my dream job, my calling even. Most of my students are in their late-teens, and many of them are dual enrolled high school students. Their high school is only about five miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which is now the site of the most deadly high school shooting in U.S. history.
We locals call the school simply “Douglas,” and a lot of my students are Douglas grads. If they aren’t, they have friends who are. I have friends who went to that school too, friends who live nearby, friends with relatives who teach there, and children who go there. I once coveted a full-time teaching position at Douglas. It’s a great place to work, in a beautiful, strong community.
My lockdown key locks every door in my school, even the bathrooms, from the inside. I never forget that. I never let it slip my mind that my lockdown key is there on my chain, and every morning, as I make my peaceful commute, coffee beside me, and podcasts on the car radio, I stop and ask myself if this will be the day that I’ll have to use it.
Not a single day passes when I don’t have it in the back of my mind that I’m literally risking my life by going to my job. And all I’m doing is standing in front of a room filled with young people, explaining to them how to express their thoughts, ideas, and feelings in words.
I’ve never thought of myself as a brave person. You wouldn’t catch me skydiving, or reporting from a war zone. I can barely wade knee-deep in the ocean without having a panic attack, yet every day I must summon from an unknown well within me, the courage to unlock my classroom door, and simply…teach. I never imagined that my job would carry with it the same risks that face police, first responders and soldiers. We educators sometimes call ourselves warriors, but we mean that metaphorically.
We used to anyway.
Somehow things got literal, and now we’re dragging bodies. We’re plotting escape routes, and putting ourselves in the line of fire when I’m like, I just want to diagram some sentences. Let me show these kids how the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates can give you chills. Can’t I spend my time on the magical prose of Tayari Jones, and Sandra Cisneros instead? Junot Diaz and Amy Tan are a much better use of our class period than figuring out a contingency plan in the event of mass murder.
I will lock the door. You will huddle in the back corner, away from the windows, and be quiet. I’ll turn off the lights and I will whisper to you every word of every soft poem I’ve ever memorized so that you will feel comforted.
And, yes. I will take a bullet for you.
I’d do this because I am good at loving other people’s children. That’s what teachers do, because we understand from a deep place sweet in the soul, that there’s no your children and my children. These young spirits belong to all of us, and we have got to protect them.
My worry is double, because I’m not only a teacher. I’m also a parent. Before I head up to my campus, I drop my daughter off at hers. I walk her all the way to the door each morning, and it’s become a habit to kiss her extra, to squeeze her one more time, to turn and look back at her freckled face once more before I go, because…who knows? It could be her school next time. Or it could be mine.
My daughter’s first grade teacher keeps a bag of lollipops on her desk. She told me it’s easier for the children to stay silent if they have something in their mouths when they have to hide in the supply closet.
We aren’t neurotic outliers. Every single teacher I know has a plan in place. We’ve practiced exactly what to do the moment we hear the first gunshots.
The wild thing is, I don’t reconsider my career options. You don’t do that when your job is your purpose. Teaching is my calling, and I’m not going to abandon my life’s work because I’m scared. And I am scared. But I will go anyway, and I will keep speaking my truth. I will continue teaching our young adults how to speak their truths too, and I will do my very best to keep them safe while I do it. My hope is that since we haven’t fixed this, if I can teach them well, then maybe one day they will succeed where we have failed them.
It is hard to explain what it feels like to be in South Florida this week. Every word feels trite and off: terrified, devastated, traumatized. My students were trembling at their desks. I had to stop class to let them vent, and I let them leave early. Go home and be with the people who love you, I told them.
On Wednesday night, our daughter slept with us because she was afraid of “the bad guys.” The next morning, outraged parents shouted for more security in the parking lot of my daughter’s elementary, as police cars flashed red and blue at every entrance.
Gut wrenching robo-calls went out from our superintendent. Suddenly, the faces on CNN were people we knew in real life. That lady was my friend’s next door neighbor. Everyone here, it seems, has a connection to Douglas. Social media is unbearable.
In my freshman composition classes, I tell my students to use their words only for the highest good. Our words aren’t for bullying, for tearing down, or for engaging in petty, online arguments. Language is a gift that we must use to build up and create. In my class, we use our words to tell our stories, to share our experiences, and to critically examine the world we live in so that we can make it better. Words should illuminate harsh realities, and words can rally.
This is my harsh reality: I shouldn’t have to be this scared to teach young people how to write essays, and they shouldn’t have to be terrified to sit in a classroom.
Now do something so this never happens again.
Because another reason we write is to give a voice to those who cannot tell their own stories, and every word I’ve typed here is for Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jaime Guttenberg, Christopher Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, and Peter Wang.