Target Practice

July 22, 2012

I’ve only been at the school for two weeks when the first siren wails, blasting through the intercom system, making me jump out of my skin. All the other kids know what to do; they drop their pencils and books and line up with brisk efficiency. I sit in my seat, dumbstruck, until Mrs. Mitchell, suddenly all business, orders me out of my seat and into the line.

We walk quickly through hallways, covering our ears to muffle the blast, passing other lines of kids. I look for my sister but do not see her. Some lines go to the cafeteria; some go to the gymnasium. We are hustled into the library and hunker down, like human roly-polys.  Arms laced around our heads, we wait, inhaling the musty odor of old books.

I start to cry, biting my lip hard, hoping nobody hears.

“Psst…it’s okay,” a girl next to me whispers, peeking through her arms. “It’s just a tornado drill. We do this all the time.”

We didn’t have drills of any kind in North Dakota. Heck, the teachers sent us out to recess in 5-degree winters, bundled up like papooses.  The worst thing that could happen in North Dakota was to spend a week stranded and snowbound with your siblings. That was a hardship, since you’d be hissing at one another like cobras after a day or so, but it was nothing like this.

This was Kansas, and in Kansas, children prepare for tornadoes.  I think about this while I wait for the drill to end. Kansas. Of course. Just like in the Wizard of Oz. I close my eyes tight, willing away thoughts of flying cows and witches on brooms.

***

I unwrap my peanut butter sandwich, clad in my very professional skirt and blouse. The head of the English department smiles wryly across the table.

“Peanut butter? Seriously? How old are you, again?”

I good-naturedly flip her the bird. “Fuck off, Jules. Teacher’s salary.” I tilt my head towards the thin man to my left. “At least I don’t bring last night’s fish, like Bill.”

“Piss off,” Bill says, completely without menace. “My lunch doth reek, but at least someone cooks for me.”

“Well can you tell your wife to lay off the fish? For the greater good?”

Bill grins wickedly and shoves a forkful of fish into his mouth. “Mmmmmm. Tasty.”

“You’re a disgusting creature,” I say, biting into my sandwich. “You know that, right?”

The door to the English department office opens abruptly. A kid–not my student–pokes his head in, wild-eyed. “Some kid just got shot at Columbine,” he yells, and then shuts the door again. There’s a commotion in the hallways.

The news is awful, but it’s hard to wrap our heads around it. We figure it’s a scuffle in the parking lot. Or a spat over a girl. Maybe even a high-school rumor that, like most rumors, catches fire and spreads. What we do know is that the lunch break is over and we have more classes to teach. So we teach.

It isn’t until later that we learn the magnitude of what really happened. My friend Stephanie is the first to call. I’m in the shower, but I scramble for the phone, dripping.

The answering machine has already picked up.

“Shitshitshit. Dane, areyouthereareyouokayareyouthere? I just heard and is that where you teach? I can’t remember. I can’t remember where you teach and holy crap–”

I pick up the phone. I’m okay. Yes, the school is nearby. It has an almost identical social demographic as the school where I teach. Many of my students know kids who attend Columbine; they play together in soccer leagues, work side by side at Starbucks.

My father insists on taking me to dinner. We sit in a booth at Chili’s, eyes glued to the televison, fries and nachos growing cold.

“Your mom’s pretty freaked out,” Daddy says. He takes my hand. “You know, if you don’t want to do this any more…”

When I get home, there are two messages on my answering machine. I call my mother first.

“It’s not safe, what you’re doing,” she says. “I really don’t think I want you in public school. It’s a bad job, a dangerous job–look what those kids did–everyone in there was a sitting duck, and that could have been you. You’re no different.”

So many things rattle and ping in my brain.  It’s all white noise. I say, “Mom. Mama. It’s okay. Let’s just not talk about this right now, all right? I’m fine. Everything is going to be fine.”

The second message is an order from the school; teachers are to report at 6am tomorrow in the auditorium. No exceptions.

We report early in the morning and it’s eerily silent in the large auditorium. No wisecracks, no sarcastic banter. We sit quietly, but there’s an undercurrent of tension, a hyper-awareness of who we are and what it means to sit in these hard seats. We are puffy-eyed and pale-faced and restless, shifting back and forth, worrying cuticles, jiggling legs.

Even the football coach, a rhino-necked hulk of macheesmo, is grimly staring at his own feet, silent.

The administrative staff comes in and informs us of extra counseling services for students and grief management groups and where the blood donations and night vigils have been scheduled and it’s really all white noise again, a blur of faces and voices and rapid-fire information, delivered succinctly.

When the spiel is over, they ask if there are any questions.

A gangly Spanish teacher, red-eyed and clearly struggling with his composure stands up. “Um. I do have a question. And thanks for all of the information you just gave us, but what are we supposed to do today?”

His voice cracks a little. “The kids who show up in my classroom today; what do I do? What am I supposed to say…I just–”

There’s an uncomfortable pause and then the principal clears his throat and approaches the microphone. “I’ll take this one,” he says to the other administrative staff. He opens his mouth, then closes it again. He takes a deep breath and looks out at all of us, steely-eyed.

“What you do today is business as usual.”

A low murmur begins in the crowd and starts to grow. He holds his hand up, silencing.

“I mean it. Business as usual. I don’t want you talking about this, I don’t want you dwelling on this. I expect you to follow the lesson plans you have written down for today. Back to normalcy.”

We exchange glances between chairs and rows, incredulous. Bill takes off his glasses and runs a hand over his eyes.

“Fuck this shit,” a veteran teacher hisses behind me. “I’m putting in for early retirement. Stupid clown.”

“Blow it off, Andy,” another teacher says, under his breath. “Your kids are your kids. Do what you think is right and do what they need. That’s what we’re all going to do, you know?”

And he’s right, that voice in the back of the room. The kids who enter my room are mine. And I am theirs. And this is not a day for business.  This is a day to sit tight, on the floor, criss-cross-applesauce, next to each other and figure out how to help each other, because none of us have a blueprint or a compass for something like this. We’re deep in the weeds, but we’re in it together.

***

A week later, a loud drill blares from the intercom. As instructed, I can the lights, lock the door, secure the windows. The students and I retreat to a far corner, huddling together, gangly limbs and pimply faces and hairsprayed tendrils. We cover our ears and wait it out. But all I know is this: we aren’t in Kansas any more.

 

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Arnebya July 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm

We never had drills, not that I can remember. I remember being TOLD what to do in case of an emergency (most DC schools have lower level bomb shelters), but never shown. In April 1999 I was 26 years old, living with my boyfriend, living it up, not a care in the world. Columbine awakened in me a long dormant fear of random acts of violence and, more importantly, how I’d react during such a situation. The theatre shooting brings it back once again. I’m tired of cowards. Tired of motherfuckers looking for the limelight, blaming society for whatever leads them to do what they do, tired of them getting the crazy label so quickly.

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Katybeth July 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm

There are nearly 314 million souls in this country—the vast majority of them wonderful people doing the right thing every day. They deserve my attention and not some coward with an assault weapons who is so evil he walks into a effen movie theater with an assault weapon and takes the lives of innocent people.
This must have dredged up awful memories for you. It sucks. I’m so sorry.

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naptimewriting July 22, 2012 at 5:08 pm
suzicate July 22, 2012 at 5:53 pm

I love the way you weaved this piece.
I remember fire drills; always scared me.
Can’t imagine being in your place and having all those frightened students the next day…of course, there is no way it could have been “business as usual”!

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Heather July 22, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Wow… Just wow… I remember being a sophomore in high school living in Omaha, NE. Our school went on lock down because of a gang fight in the parking lot. I was in my too short, too tight gym clothes, stuck in the gym, laying face down on the sweat filled floor. It was a reality check I had no idea how to handle. Still my mind cannot embrace the thought. I cannot begin to imagine what it was like to be in or near Columbine on that day. A very sad, very amazing story.

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naptimewriting July 22, 2012 at 7:29 pm

.

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Contemporary Troubadour July 22, 2012 at 8:57 pm

This sent chills through me as I read it. I knew you’d taught high school, but I didn’t know it was this close to Columbine. I’ve got no words, just that clenched gut feeling from remembering what it was to be the only person who could be there for my own students once upon a time, and the knowledge that no one, in moments like this, could ever be enough for them.

{{{You}}}

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Abby July 23, 2012 at 4:45 am

As usual, incredible writing that left me holding my breath until the end. I do remember Columbine, coming home and seeing my mom watching it on TV and having no clue what had happened. We had bomb threats monthly in high school–lovely, I know–but I can’t imagine the terror of being part of such a real and raw tragedy.

Beautiful words for an ugly, horrific situation.

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Caitlin July 23, 2012 at 6:26 am

i have to echo abby.. incredible writing as usual. im in the generation of unnecessary evil.. in high school during columbine and college during the va tech massacre. its depressing that we have almost become numb to these types of things

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 11:06 am

Caitlin,

We’re not numb, I think. I think maybe it’s just so awful that we honestly don’t want to go there in our heads. You are, indeed, in the generation of unnecessary evil. Pointless evil.

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 11:03 am

Abby,

You know what’s weird? A janitor had found a pipe bomb first thing that morning in the entryway of the schol. AND the school let kids in. We had to hang out in the gym for an hour and a half until they found out it was inactive. And then what followed just a few hours later…

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Tiffany July 23, 2012 at 5:39 am

I remember Columbine like it was yesterday. I was pregnant with Olivia and teaching high school in a very similar demographic to that school. I didn’t ever want to go back; I didn’t feel safe anywhere. Then 9-11 happened and I wondered if there would ever be a “normal” school year.

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 11:04 am

Tiff,

I was pregnant with Miss D. on 9/11 and I remember wondering, “Why am I bringing a kid into this mess we live in?”

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Paula July 23, 2012 at 7:23 am

Bet you were a fantastic teacher.

This reminds me of a Bible study I went to the morning of 9/11. The main teacher instructed all of us leaders to carry on like normal. In her defense, it was early in the morning before everyone quite figured out what was going on. But still.

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 11:05 am

Paula,

Really? That’s nuts. If anything, you should have been praying about other things, right?

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Barbara July 23, 2012 at 7:58 am

I remember bomb drills, fire drills, tornado drills. All normal in my generation.
How is it possible to prepare for murder drills? It’s not. That’s what’s terrifying.

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 11:09 am

Barbara,

I didn’t really think of it that way until you put it into words. Murder drills. You are right. That’s what we prepare our kids for now–or at least we try.

On a lighter note, Miss D.’s school, a few years ago, had a big old bear wander onto the school lawn. He peeked inside the window of the school nurse and she freaked! She told me they had a “Bear Drill.”

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Liz July 23, 2012 at 8:05 am

Why didn’t I know that you used to teach??? This so resonated me, obviously.
I loved the approach you took with it. Here’s the other thing, too: the conversations you guys had…the “business as usual” and “I’m putting in for early retirement” and “they are YOUR kids; do what you think”…that all keeps happening all the time, whether it’s a death of a student (have had that experience, twice, too), or a larger-scale crisis, or just the damned state tests.
As I look forward to starting the school year again soon, I have to keep reminding myself: “They are MY kids. And I am theirs. Close the door and do what I think is best.”

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 11:10 am

Liz,

Ah, if they’d ever just let us close the door and do our job…

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Jennifer July 23, 2012 at 10:02 am

This is an amazing piece of writing. Your emotion just flowed right through the words. I felt like I was sitting right there on that bench with you, wondering what to do next.

So many bad things happen. But so many good things happen too. I’m going to (try to) continue to focus on those good things.

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amanda {the habit of being} July 23, 2012 at 11:01 am

powerful writing. i’m covered in goosebumps, thinking good things for the people of colorado.

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Elaine A. July 23, 2012 at 11:09 am

Oh I remember those tornado drills so well. I always thought they were scary even if if it was not a real disaster. Just the fact that we had to have them, you know?

Kids should never have to be in fear and especially at school. I am especially sorry your students ever had to be…

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 11:12 am

Elaine A.,

Any kind of drill is rattling. Maybe the way they just spring it on you, and you don’t know if it’s real or not? I guess that’s the point, but geez.

I think that’s what’s so shocking about all of this garbage–you think you are safe at school, that you are safe going to the movies. And then one whackjob can yank the rug right from your feet.

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Kate July 23, 2012 at 11:19 am

I’m so glad you’re okay now, and then. Though my heart grieves.

It’s so easy to let the fear win, forcing us to hide, or to pretend nothing happened. It takes courage to sit side by side, crisscross applesauce, and be with that fear.

Someone called in a bomb threat to my elementary school. This was before such things were common place and we evacuated. We huddled in a toy store across the street in horrible costumes for a pe dance – we were raisins in trash bags and sun glasses.

I went to a very different demographic high school where I walked past a student holding a gun in the hall. No one was hurt that day or when the drive by happened at soccer practice.

Those experiences were so different. There is an inexplicable awfulness to hurting without provocation.

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 11:23 am

Kate,

That you all were dressed like California Raisins adds such a horrible humor to the story. Sick, sick, sick.

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Maggie S. July 23, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Fires, Tornados, Flip-outs.

Natural Disasters.

Thank you for being brave.

Thank you for writing.

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idiosyncratic eye July 23, 2012 at 1:56 pm

I have no words but I may settle for: oh my days. :)

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Sherri July 23, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I am old enough to have been in a preschool program at Kent State University’s lab school when the National Guard shooting incident happened back in the 1970′s. They told us to assume the position of a tornado drill in the hallway, and, of course, because we were Ohioans and used to such drills, we didn’t even know that men with guns were right outside our door. These moments are all so scary……

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TKW July 24, 2012 at 6:33 am

Sherri,

That must have been terrifying, especially in retrospect. In the hallway? Jeez.

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Sherri July 24, 2012 at 10:39 am

All these terrible incidents recently – the theater – the schools….. terrifying from a distance, right? You do an eloquent job of detailing the emotion behind such “drills”.

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Biz July 23, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I couldn’t have a better comment than Maggie S. Hugs!

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Belinda July 23, 2012 at 4:48 pm

I tell myself that Columbine and Aurora are isolated cases, but that’s really a non-answer to this riddle. There are larger problems we’re not addressing because, heck, where do we begin? Gun control would be a start, but I don’t know that it’s the sole answer. Just like the bumbling principal whose mandate was so counter-intuitive, so many of us revert to denial mode because if we begin to look, those cracks in the system are mighty overwhelming…

Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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TKW July 23, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Belinda,

I know. The reaction has been nuts–every radical party is using this as a platform for their own political agenda, and it makes me sick. Yeah, that guy should not–in no way–have been given access to a semi-automatic. He was odd enough to be rejected by shooting ranges in the area. Did anyone report him? No. If someone seems so twisted that you reject him from your shooting range, shouldn’t that go on record?

But it is far too easy to blame others. Yesterday morning, my husband asked me if we should buy a gun and learn to shoot. This is Mr. Liberal, here. I think it was the casualty of the six-year old girl that sent us both reeling. Her blond hair and little bird-boned body, smeared in red.

My answer is, and will always be no. No guns in this house. No guns in the car. No guns, period.

“So how do we defend ourselves?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. ” Just not that way.”

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Tinne from Tantrums and Tomatoes July 25, 2012 at 4:36 am

Powerfull.
Hugs to all of you in the face of this terribly tragedy in Colorado.

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BigLittleWolf July 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm

This is absolutely chilling to read, Dana. And even more chilling, knowing you lived it.

Business as usual?

My younger son is home from college, home from his first job (overseas, an internship), home for a short time just “hanging” with a friends – going here or there. The other night he asked for the car keys and said he was going out. “Not to a movie, right?” I asked. It was automatic. “No,” he said, and gave me a look that required no words.

The sense of powerlessness is overwhelming. And how will those families ever deal with an insane act of this magnitude?

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TKW July 27, 2012 at 10:51 am

Wolfie,

I know. Now we’re scared to send our kids to the movies? Jesus.

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Velva July 25, 2012 at 4:55 pm

I was a few paragraphs into your blog post, prepared to howl with laughter( I think microwaving fish should be illegal) but then you got serious on me…You took me on a journey. A journey of sadness, humor and the strength of the human spirit.

I am so saddened by the tragedies.

Velva

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TKW July 27, 2012 at 10:53 am

Velva,

The whole state–and probably the nation–is still reeling. So many people have stepped up to help that it restores some faith in humanity. But I’m still scared of the movies now. *shaking head*

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Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri July 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Your account left me speechless. I have no answers. Gun control, vigilance, and monitoring ammo sales- I don’t know if looking at any of these issues could prevent these massacres from occuring. It’s senseless and tragic. I’ve come to this conclusion: no human action surprises me.

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TKW July 27, 2012 at 10:54 am

Rudri,

And isn’t that sad? How did we become so used to humans acting abominably? It floors me.

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Robin July 26, 2012 at 11:48 am

Wow! Powerful and very moving!

My sister is a teacher here on the east coast and her school holds ‘murder’ drills (as Barb so aptly called them). My sister doesn’t have a classroom. She roams. That means she doesn’t have a key for whatever room she is teaching in. When these drills happen, her kids (Special Ed) have to scramble to another class. Yep, they have to go out in the hall and beg another teacher to unlock a door and let them in, which is against the drill’s protocol. Crazy world. How can you really prepare for crazy when it happens?

Drills: When I was in elementary school, we had drills in case the big one dropped – it was during the cold war of the 1960′s. As the ’60′s progressed, we were evacuated from school because of the riots. No drills for riots. Our parents had to come pick us up.

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TKW July 27, 2012 at 10:55 am

Robin,

Riots and bombs. Wow. And we think we’ve got it bad–I guess we just face a different kind of uncertain horror.

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Jane July 26, 2012 at 7:14 pm

When my sister got her first teaching job she was thrilled. I asked which school. She said “Remember the movie Boyz N The Hood?” I gasped. “It’s not that school,” she assured me. “It’s the rival gang school mentioned in the movie.” She was so excited to be teaching in inner-city L.A. She felt that was where she could make a difference. I so admire teachers like her. Teachers like you.

You are my hero.

(And I love your response to your husband regarding guns in the house. My thoughts exactly!)

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TKW July 27, 2012 at 10:57 am

Jane,

You wouldn’t believe the reaction I had when he mentioned the gun issue. I went into orbit, I swear. I almost kicked him.

Is your sister still teaching in LA? Wow. She is really amazing.

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