It started like any other Friday afternoon. I walked through the unlocked front doors of my kids’ school, stopped in the office to sign in as a volunteer and grab an ID badge, and headed down the hall to Ms. C.’s first grade classroom. I was there to help the kids write a newsletter about their week.
Instead, I was reminded of my worst nightmare.
As soon as I stepped into the classroom, a voice came through the school intercom.
“This is a lockdown drill. I repeat, this is a lockdown drill.”
My heart seized a little, but of course I knew it was just a drill. I had heard about these drills before; our kids had recounted how they were similar to fire drills. As parents, my husband and I know how important they are to help rehearse procedures and combat chaos in case any terrible emergency event should occur at the school.
Good. I’m here to help, I thought.
“They need to go to the corner,” my daughter’s teacher, Ms. C., informed me calmly and she began to usher the children to an area of the classroom where the sink, cubbies and a communal table are, partly separated from the main section by a few low bookcases. Ms. C. turned off the classroom lights, locked the door and closed the window shades as the kids crawled into the corner of the floor and I sat down with them.
My daughter was near me, in an area closest to the classroom door. She had tucked herself under a spare desk but couldn’t fit all the way. Her bum was peeking out. She fidgeted. Around her, other kids crouched in balls and fidgeted, too.
“Shhhhh,” I whispered. One minute ticked by.
We tried to hold still in the classroom, the halls outside eerily silent, the sunlight just horizontal slits through the shuttered blinds. Time seemed to slow.
Should be over pretty soon, I thought to myself. Seems to be a pretty smooth process they have here.
I eyed the class door, locked from the inside. How much does that help, I wondered, if there’s a gun? Two minutes.
“Be quiet,” squeaked a child, while two others giggled and a couple of boys thumped in the corner. “Mommy,” murmured my own daughter, peeking back at me from under the old, creaky desk.
“Shhhhh,” I repeated, for them, for myself.
It was Crazy Hair Day that Friday, and someone had given the children old-fashioned Krispy Kreme hats made out of paper. A handful of kids were wearing them on their heads. With every breath, wiggle and twitch, those soda fountain hats crunched and crinkled.
They’re giving us away to the hypothetical shooter, I thought. Crunch. Crink. Crinkle.
“Shhhhh,” I whispered. How long would it take a gunman to burst in here? And then more horrible companion thoughts, one leading to the next like dominoes engaged: What’s the safest place for a child in this room? Behind the filing cabinet? Under that desk? Behind another child, bodies as shields? Who would have the best chance?
Crinkle, crrrinkle, went the Krispy Kreme hats, like sheets of paper beings ripped off one of those big rolls in the art room downstairs. The opposite of quiet.
I thought suddenly, without the ability to stop myself, of other classrooms on other horrible days, when the quiet was not a drill but a true living nightmare. Headlines flashed; old anxieties rose up, a modern-day parent’s PTSD.
Three minutes. Crinkle.
What we need is a trap door — a trap floor, I decided, half irrationally. An escape hatch to a reinforced bunker, in this room, and every room, in every school. A nation of underground passageways to safety, to saneness. Press a button and — boom — fall through the floor, disappear. I felt a flash of understanding for those Cold War parents, with their fallout shelters and carefully accounted provisions.
But would trap floors save us from the insanity of having to shield our schoolchildren from weapons of mass destruction on an otherwise normal Friday afternoon when they should be starting show and tell? How will we put an end to this?
“Attention: The lockdown drill is now over. I repeat, the lockdown drill is now over.”
And like that, in a rush of light-up sneakers and paper hats, we all got up.
I wish I could say with certainty that my kids are safer for it.
I wish I could say that I quickly moved on to other tasks without another thought to our lockdown drill or what its absolute necessity signifies.
I wish I could say that when I took a little first grader aside to help her write her part of the class newsletter, and she began to copy this sentence, “On Thursday we measured wind velocity,” my eye didn’t transmute the word “measured,” written there on the week’s calendar in the choppy hand of Ms. C., into the word “massacred.” I wish I could say I didn’t shake as I said to the little girl in the pink braids, “Let’s form our letters slowly, Emma.”
I wish I could say that I believe even the most organized, well-executed lockdown exercise will keep children safe from harm. I wish I could say that I am not still trembling from a three-minute elementary school drill.
I wish a lot of things that aren’t.