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.