Seventeen years ago, I was a first-year teacher working alone in my classroom when a police officer came to my door. He told me to “get low” and to come with him to the auditorium.
There, I found all 400 students of P.S. 23 watching “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Without my knowledge, a man had been standing and waving a gun directly below my third-floor window.
No one made a big deal about this event. The principal did not call a staff meeting, no parents were contacted.
Later, when I explained to my fourth-graders what had happened, many of them laughed. “Probably my uncle,” one of them joked.
I Shouldn’t Have to Lie to My Students
Many schools began practicing lockdown drills after Columbine. However, it wasn’t until 2012, after the shooting in Newtown, that my school—a high-poverty school in Portland, Maine, where nearly half of the students are English-language learners—got serious about them.
If you are a teacher, you probably know how simultaneously eerie and bizarre it is to practice huddling with 25 kids in a dark corner. Hiding behind desks and coats, you hope that it will all work.
I used to tell my students that these drills were for rare, unexpected situations—the most probable scenario would be that someone got injured or lost. I tried to downplay the possibilities. Still, a student would always ask, “What if it’s a shooter?”
I used to say this was very, very unlikely and that we adults knew how to keep them safe. I still want to believe that.
Our Students Deserve More
In 2000, my students joked about gun-wielding uncles. In 2018, they are calling for action on gun control.
Recently, our mayor visited my class. He asked my students what they’d like him to accomplish while in office. They want fewer potholes and more trees. They want to use cellphones in school and eat better lunches.
Then my students told him to do something about guns—they’re 10 years old. But they are right.
The current focus on school safety should also include what students—especially students living in poverty—face outside of school. Within 10 days of the Parkland shooting, 21 other children were killed by gun violence in the U.S. Seven children and teens are killed by guns on an average day, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), guns kill 10 times more Black children than White children.
My students may not know these stats, but the echoes of this reality are apparent in their lives. Just last week, while on lunch duty, I overheard a group of students talking about the gunshots they heard in their housing project complex. So yes, they are wise to ask for gun control.
If schools are seriously trying to protect kids, the responses need to be more proactive than just locking down and locking up. As teachers, we can empower students with the agency to demand answers not only for mass shootings, but also for the chronic violence that harms far too many young individuals in their own communities.
I will keep inviting legislators in to hear these young voices. I will challenge my students to read and write about everything and not to shy away from difficult conversations. I will help them understand that it takes persistence to affect change, and that it is always worth the fight. I will help them know what questions to ask, whom to ask and what to do with the answers.
And even though it won’t come close to addressing the devastating consequences of gun violence, I will keep practicing lockdowns.