The 10 high school students in Sherry Deckman's English as a Second Language class are working on a warm-up lesson -- "Use the helping verb 'can' in a complete sentence" -- when their teacher interrupts.

"Class is going to be shortened today," Deckman announces, because everyone at Calvin Coolidge Senior High in Northwest Washington is going to practice the school's emergency response plan.

"It's kind of like a fire drill," she tells her students, a mix of immigrants from Africa and Central America.

Deckman refers to a memo on her desk. It's a list of potential catastrophes: earthquake, severe storm, plane crash, bomb. For each event, the memo prescribes a response. In the case of gunfire, for instance, students are to "hit the deck." In the case of a release of hazardous chemicals or biological agents, students would "shelter in place," which is what they are about to practice.

As if on cue, a disembodied voice pipes through the intercom. Your attention, please. Given what's going on in the world, we have to be prepared for any eventuality . . . We're taking this very seriously. Our expectation is that everyone participate.

The voice clicks off, and an alarm bell rings. Deckman's students, most of whom have experienced war in their home countries, quietly leave the room and walk to the gymnasium, where hundreds of their peers have already gathered.

Inside the gym, there is no evidence of anxiety. Two young women in the corner share a set of headphones, bouncing to the beat. A gangly boy tries -- and fails -- to grab the rim of a basketball hoop. Deckman's students talk trivia. "Salaam means 'hello' in Amharic," says an Ethiopian girl.

Finally a security guard signals all clear, and the teenagers roll back to class, where Deckman resumes her English lesson. "How about these helping verbs?" she asks.

Students volunteer to share their sentences, even as the intercom voice clicks back to life. We are receiving the amounts of water and food that we would need in case of an emergency. It is being shipped just now.

No one appears to be listening.

-- Tyler Currie