My 14-year-old son participated in some awful calculus today.
He heard that there was an active shooter at my school and, though he wanted to text me for assurance that I was OK, indeed, still alive, he feared that a beep or vibration might alert a predator to my presence, thereby sealing my fate.
It was over dinner tonight that he shared his decision not to reach out, almost nonchalantly.
I was sitting in my counseling office today, talking to a senior about her college options, when I heard sirens. We’re in a city, so one siren is not noteworthy. Then there were two, maybe three, then an absolute cacophony.
Clearly, something was amiss somewhere. I worried briefly for the poor souls who were surely having a horrific day somewhere near me.
Then I heard a breathless administrator on the intercom declare that we were on lock-down. The fear in her voice was palpable.
I reached out, locked my door and offered a follow-up question about financial aid, possible majors or reach schools. Something was very wrong, but we were on lock-down and I had a student in my office.
“Mr. Wilkerson, I’m really scared.”
I told her that we were totally safe in my office, knowing that there are some promises we can’t keep, no matter how desperately we want our words to be true.
We heard running in the hall, boots pounding, knuckles rapping on doors. “Police! Police!” Someone jiggled my door handle from the other side. Were they really the police? What was the right move? We sat in interminable, desperate silence.
After a while, I considered another insipid question about meal plans or campuses or the FAFSA but thought better of it. Neither of us was really interested in that farce any longer.
I hoped she didn’t see the bead of sweat rolling down my temple. I passed her a tissue to wipe the tear from her cheek.
Finally, blessedly, a voice came on the intercom and announced that the lock-down was over. I was holding a booklet of hall passes in my hand as I searched my cluttered desk for a booklet of passes.
My student charitably pointed out that I was holding her pass and she quickly departed after I scribbled my signature. We both mumbled that we would follow up later.
There was a line of parents at the front of the school, faces tear-streaked, desperate to pick up their kids. A secretary had fallen in the commotion and was icing her ankle.
Administrators were posted in disparate places meeting heretofore unknown needs, answering unanswerable questions, and comforting seemingly everyone. The nurse’s office was full of students with stomach aches, but instead of meds, they were getting hugs.
I decided that a counselor’s best role in any crisis is to counsel, so I set out to walk the building and ensure that as many people as possible knew that they were not alone.
I really wanted the teachers to know that someone was paying attention to the fact that we had just been through something monstrous. I wanted the kids to know that they were OK. I wanted to get out of my office and ensure that everyone was really alive.
I found half-full classrooms with teachers and students processing their grief, their fear, their helplessness. Teachers on their planning periods were staring at the wall, stricken.
I asked everyone how their spirit was. To a person, they said that they were shaken, but OK, and asked me how I was. We all agreed that this must not, cannot, become the new normal.
You see, last week, we were also on lock-down for the possibility of a gunman.
The police have come to our school armed to mitigate a violent threat two times in two weeks. We thank them for their bravery, their temerity and their remarkably quick responses, but we so wish they didn’t have to keep marching down our halls with rifles. No guns have been fired in either event, but the fear remains.
When you’re on one side of a door and you believe that there is someone on the other side who wishes to end your life, the terror doesn’t just dissipate when you later find out that it was a false alarm.
Someone called 911 today and claimed that there were two active shooters in our halls. Similar calls have been made regarding multiple schools in Virginia and around the country.
The police came ready to lay down their lives in defense of our kids. Our teachers were stalwart in hiding in their rooms with our kids.
Parents were in the parking lot, crying for their kids. Our kids were in their classrooms, hoping that the next sound they heard wouldn’t be that of a gunman trying to get to them.
It was horrific, and though it wasn’t ultimately real, our trauma was. And the helplessness remains.
Despite it all, I saw incredible heroism today. There was beautiful resilience afterwards. There was love everywhere.
I walked through halls filled with weary, exhausted, scared, golden human beings who just want to be able to go to school, to learn, to teach without fear of being violently eliminated from this life.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and we must refuse to normalize this atrocity, despite how regularly it keeps happening.
How did we get to a place where the threat of spontaneous, senseless murder is an omnipresent existential threat in that most American of places: the public high school?
Somehow the same folks who are desperate to paint teachers as indoctrinators seem to be the ones who wish to perpetuate the belief that unregulated gun ownership is the only path to real freedom and that kids’ lives are a price worth paying for that obscene version of liberty.
Real freedom, true liberty and the honest American dream have to include safety at school. Otherwise, what are we really learning anyway, aside from how to lock our doors and pretend we’re anywhere other than in our classroom?
At dinner, I told my son that I keep my phone on silent. He can text me any time.