Listen to this story
I was a school librarian in a DC public elementary school for six and a half years until I resigned in January of this year. On October 17, 2017, we thought we had an active shooter in our building and went into a frenzied lockdown. Five seconds after I received a text message from my colleague that said ACTIVE SHOOTER double doors opened and a line of 22 second graders came through, headed to me.
For everyone who is not a teacher, you can imagine this moment: rushing them into the classroom, putting paper over the windows, locking the door. You can imagine what it means to be this kind of adult — one responsible for the lives of 22 children.
Teachers are aware of this responsibility every day. Specialists, like I was as the school librarian, are aware of what it means to be responsible for every student in the building for at least 45-minutes once or twice a week. We know all of them.
What you can’t fully imagine, if you are not a teacher, is the information that will rush through your brain.
Their parents’ faces. The beautiful things these children have said to you over the last few years (the horrible things, too). Every holiday and Teacher Appreciation Day card, every post-it they stole from your desk to write that they love you, the books and authors they like best, their favorite outfits, their favorite read aloud, the bad things that have happened to them that are in case files in the main office, the good things they want to share the moment they see you. The ones who still can’t tie their shoelaces. The strength of each of their hi-fives. Which kids they play with at recess, who eats school lunch and who brings it from home, which ones take the bus, which ones have baby siblings they can’t wait to kiss on the foreheads at the end of the day, which ones have older siblings that they try, hilariously, to emulate, and on and on and on and on.
Non-teachers don’t know what it means to be the keepers and protectors of that beautiful information.
Non-teachers don’t know what it means to recognize in one horrible instant that you are all that stands between them and a bullet if the gunmen makes it to you.
But I never wished for a gun that day. I never wished I had a gun to fight back with.
I thought about how many of them my body could cover. I thought about where would be best to hide them and which angle they would be most visible from. I thought about how thick the bookcases were and if they could take a bullet. I thought about the strength of a deadbolt. I thought about the weakness of glass. I thought about what size body could fit through a broken window.
I never wanted to kill whoever might have been on the other end, though.
Because teachers, more than most others, can recognize a child in anyone. They’re uniquely interested in understanding what might have happened to them to bring them here, from the six-year-old with anxiety, to the teenager with a gun, to the adult with a gun. And I hate that person, that person with a gun, but I also think about how we failed them. Society, parents, schools, mental health providers, child protective services. I think about how someone, or many someones, failed them.
I won’t be able to say this the way I want to, but: until we fix all of the very, very fucked up pieces in our society, the best defense we have is stricter gun laws. And for anyone to deny that is absurd. And to arm teachers, to even suggest arming teachers, is such a horrible example of where we’re at.
The situation that day ended up being a terrible miscommunication, based in fear and news that there was an active shooter in the building behind us. After many hours of searching, this turned out to be false information. We didn’t know this until the school day was nearly over. I have never been more scared and exhausted in my life.
I work with adults now in a public library and I have a whole other perspective on how awful the world can be, but I also see the children in every single adult that comes in that door. I see how society failed many of them. I see what hurt them and how drugs and the streets and forced sex work and assault and guns all make sense. I see how it would be possible to wallow in this information endlessly.
But if the students in Florida are an example of our future, I have to believe some of this can change. If my former students are an example of our future, I have to believe some of this can change.