“Excuse the interruption. We are under a lockdown.”
That was it.
Not an explanation of what caused it.
Not any idea of how much danger we were in.
Not any idea of how long it would last.
Just a vague warning that teachers knew meant to keep all their students in class until further notice.
As an educator, you’re expected to teach.
It doesn’t matter what’s happening around you. There can be yelling or screaming. There can be a scuffle in the next room. The lights may flicker off and on.
None of that matters.
If you have students and aren’t in immediate danger, you’re expected to teach them.
And that’s what I did. Even then.
I teach mostly poor and minority students in a western Pennsylvania school near Pittsburgh.
My 8th grade language arts class was in the middle of taking a final exam on The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.
Most of my students were finished, but it was still quiet as two or three students struggled through their last responses.
Then the announcement came over the PA.
The voice was the high school secretary. Since the middle and high school are connected, she rarely makes announcements in my building – only when something is important happening for both buildings.
The kids looked up at me with worried faces.
“What’s going on, Mr. Singer?” one of them asked.
I told them the truth – I really had no idea. There were no drills planned for today. In fact, it would have been a really poor time for one. We had just had ALICE training the day before where the resource officer and the principal had met with students to go over what to do in case of an active shooter. The program is named for the courses of actions it recommends – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.
So we were apparently in the L.
During the assembly, the resource officer had said quite bluntly that there would be no coded messages. If a school shooter entered the building, officials would tell us in plain language what was happening so we could make an informed decision what to do.
But there was no additional message over the PA. That was it.
I went over to my computer to see if there was an email. Nope. Nothing.
I pressed refresh a few times. Nothing.
I asked the students to hush and just listened.
It was extremely quiet. Even the hallway was silent and it’s never that silent except during standardized testing.
My room has no windows to the outside. It’s a brick box with one wooden door containing a sliver of window.
The door was already closed and locked. We’re told to keep it that way just in case. But there’s an additional deadbolt you can click to make it even harder to gain access to the room.
“It’s probably nothing,” I said as I walked over to the door and surreptitiously clicked the deadbolt.
I asked student to finish their tests.
It seemed the best course of action. We could either worry about an unknown that was extremely unlikely or else just take care of our business.
It was hard getting the students to calm down. They were scared, and, frankly, so was I.
But this seemed the best thing we could do – Seek normalcy but stay vigilant in case things changed.
“Mr. Singer, may I use the bathroom?” asked one child.
“I’m sorry, but no.” I said. “Not until the lockdown is over.”
Somehow I quieted them down and the remaining students finished their tests.
It seemed to take them forever.
I stood by those who were finalizing answers in the hope that my physical presence would get them to concentrate.
For the millionth time I pondered the wisdom of grouping kids into classes based on test scores. All you end up doing is sorting them by poverty, race, trauma and behavior problems.
But they were soon done.
So they handed in the tests and we went over the answers.
“May I use the bathroom?”
“No. Not yet. Sorry.”
For about five minutes things went as they would on any other day.
But as soon as there was a lull in the activity, the fear and worry returned.
Students wanted to take out their cell phones and call or text home.
I told them not to.
“Why?” asked a boy in the front.
I knew the answer. We had nothing we could tell parents other than that there was a lockdown. We didn’t know what caused it or what was happening. If there was something bad going on, having parents come to the school would only make things worse.
But I just told him to put it away. I didn’t want to debate the situation. I didn’t want them (or me) to think about what might be happening.
We hadn’t finished watching the movie version of “The Outsiders” so I quickly put that on.
We only had about 15 minutes to go. And watching Dally get shot down by police probably wasn’t the best choice under the circumstances.
Still, the kids were focused on the film and not the lockdown.
We discussed how the movie and the book differed for a few moments.
But inevitably there was a lull.
We all got quiet and just listened. Nothing.
No. Down the hall we could hear something. Maybe a scuffle. Voices. It was hard to tell.
I started thinking of options, what to do if someone tried to enter the room. But it got quiet again.
Still no email. No message. Nothing.
I could call the office on my school phone, but that just might make things worse.
“Mr. Singer, I’ve GOT to use the bathroom!”
I looked around. I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t let him out there. It would literally be better if he peed his pants.
He must have seen my confusion. “Can I just pee in a bottle or something?”
“Do you have a bottle?”
I was about to tell him to take the garbage can into the corner and pee into it but there was no empty corner in the room.
Before I could remark any further, he said, “It’s okay. I’ll just hold it.”
That’s when I noticed the time. We had already spent more than the 40 minutes in the allotted period. The bell should have rung to get students to move to another room. That meant the bells were off.
The students noticed, too.
I kept telling them that everything was probably fine and that I wouldn’t let anything happen to them.
Then we noticed something weird out of the window in the door.
One of the school custodians was standing right outside the room.
He didn’t seem alarmed. He appeared to be looking for something.
Then another custodian walked up to him and they conferred in the hall.
We heard talking. Perhaps the principal in the distance.
Whatever was happening they seemed to have it under control and didn’t appear worried.
I had nothing planned for my students to do. We were well off book here. I couldn’t just start a new unit. I had no idea how long we’d be here.
So I asked them to take out their self-selected books and read.
“How are we going to concentrate on that?” someone asked.
I didn’t really have an answer but it was better to try than to worry needlessly.
So after some cajoling, they dutifully took their books out. Most just stared around the room listening to every nonexistent sound. But some at least appeared to be reading.
“NO YOU CAN’T USE THE BATHROOM!”
Then not long after, the announcement came that the lockdown was over and students could move to their next class.
There was no explanation. Kids just breathed a collective sigh and went to their classes.
I let anyone use the restroom who asked. And I tried to teach through another class.
I truly expected a printed letter from the superintendent to be hand delivered to the room so the kids could take it home. But no. Perhaps there hadn’t been enough time to write, print and disperse one.
After the students were dismissed, I expected administrators to announce a staff meeting to let the teachers know, at least, what had happened. But there was nothing.
I went into another teacher’s room and saw a group talking. THAT was when I found out about what had happened.
A group of students in the high school had been fighting.
Apparently it was pretty bad – almost a riot. One child had been knocked cold and taken out of the building on a stretcher. The others had been removed by police.
When teachers had broken it up, some of the kids had run and were hiding in the building. That’s why the lockdown.
There was more on the 11 O’clock News. Some of the kids had filmed the fight with their phones and put it up on Snapchat.
We eventually got a letter from the superintendent and an email from another administrator saying that it had just been a minor fight.
Parents were on the news saying that administration hadn’t handled it properly, but no one showed up at the next school board meeting to complain.
And so life goes on.
The threat of violence always hangs over our heads.
It probably won’t ever come down to the worst case scenario. Yet the fact that it might and that no one really seems to be doing much of anything to stop it from getting to that point – that changes what it means to be in school.
We live with this reality everyday now.
It’s not fair to students. It’s not fair to teachers or parents.
But when you live in a society so broken that it can’t even begin to address its own problems, this is what you get.
Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!