There has been more than one mass shooting a day in the United States in 2015. While there has been a great deal attention paid to the shooters and their victims, less attention has been focused on how the constant violence affects children and the schools that they attend. In this piece, an educator looks at how violence over the past few years, starting with the December 2012 mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, affected her classes and schools at large. It was written by Elizabeth Skoski, who was a high school English teacher in the Bronx and Brooklyn until recently moving to a non-profit. Her writing has been published in McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine, and other publications.
By Elizabeth Skoski
The afternoon of Sandy Hook, my school’s public address system crackled to life. We had just returned from a field trip and dismissed our school full of students from the safety of their teachers into the big, scary world. We’d been cut off from the news for the day and were just starting to find out about shooting.
“This is a hard lockdown,” the voice over the loudspeaker commanded. My fellow teachers’ faces went blank. We looked at each other for a moment, unsure of exactly what to do. My colleague grabbed a student who was waiting for her mother and we all rushed into her empty classroom. We forgot to lock the door. We remembered to turn off the lights. We sat under a table in the back corner, as far away from the windows and doors as could be.
We waited. We waited and tried not to think of the bodies of children, dead in the hallways and classrooms that looked just like our own.
We hid for about 15 minutes. Finally, the loudspeaker announced, “The lockdown is lifted.”
I look back at those minutes as the line separating the before and the after.
In the before, school shootings were something that we didn’t have to think about too much. They were one of those things that had to be covered in the pre-year staff onboarding: Here is the procedure if your student requires an Epi pen; here is what to do if there’s a fight in your classroom; oh, and on Page 27, please review the procedure for lockdown drills. Mass shootings were few and far between.
In the after, no one had to look to Page 27, because the procedure had become so common, required so frequently, it was etched in the minds of educators. Posters went up in our classrooms, detailing what to do in the event of an intruder. We responded to drills with the precision of soldiers. Lock the door and turn off the lights. Hide your students as best you can (watch as near-adult sized high schoolers crouch their bodies under desks, manipulate themselves behind bookshelves.) Wait. Wait for 15 minutes. Thirty minutes. An hour. Keep them quiet. Don’t react when someone jiggles the door knob (hopefully it’s just a drill). Think about how you will get your 30-plus students out of the room if it’s not a drill. Think about how far four stories is and if a human could survive that drop. Think about how many you could fit in the small closet, the cabinets that line the top of your room, behind you. Think about your husband and your parents and your friends and wonder if you can make that sacrifice.
The first Monday in the after, back in 2012, I’m barely through the doors of my school before my eyes water. I see “Sarg,” the jovial security guard who checks people in and out of the building and we smile sadly at each other, the unspoken question between us: what would we do? I leave the box of donuts I purchased on the way to school in the office with a note: Please Take, my small act of kindness the president called for. I walk down the hallway and everything is muted, like someone faded the colors. In my classes, we talk about what happened and my students have to leave the room in tears. We have a moment of silence and I feel a tear fall on my cheek.
“Miss, are you crying?” one asks.
Don’t let them see you cry, we’re told by older teachers. Be the authority, be the strength in the room. But that advice doesn’t seem to apply.
“Yes. It’s very sad.” I say. It is the only time I cry in front of my students.
We write letters of support to the Sandy Hook community. I tell my students to not feel any pressure; they could simply write that they’re thinking of the families in this difficult time. But my class of students from Bushwick and Bed-Sty and Brownsville write their own tragedies so neatly lined on the paper. They sit over their desks in silence, scratching out the personal misfortunes they have experienced. They ask me to read their letters, to check and see if they’re okay. I read their words filled with unimaginable understanding from their 15 short years of life. They write of understanding the feeling of emptiness after a friend’s death. They write about their anger over a parent’s death. They write about the guns they see tucked into waistbands and the firecracker pops in the night outside their windows. They write with an intimate knowledge of gun violence. They write with such an understanding of viciousness and heartbreak that I almost can’t believe the amount of compassion that pours through.
I don’t think it then but I do, years later, as we stand huddled in the corner during one of the many lockdowns that has become a part of our daily lives. My students come to school for refuge. Many come because their teachers are the only ones who smile at them during the day. Many come because their teachers are the only ones who listen to their triumphs. Many come because their tragedies at home have them living fight-or-flight on a daily basis and school is the only space they could relax.
In the before, it was the only place they were safe.
The supposed right to own a gun has invaded our refuge, our safe place. It has robbed my most vulnerable students of their only security. It makes us leave our discussion of “To Kill A Mockingbird” so we can crouch in silence in fear of the open window (me trying to remember if I locked the door in the rush to get students to the back.) It makes my teenager ask in a timid voice if she can hold the stuffed dog left over from my Dorothy Halloween costume.
This supposed right has inflicted a sickness of fear on our most at-risk population, our children. Because of this, they have lost their safe places, their schools, their movie theaters, their public parks. Because of this, parents and guardians and teachers across the country have to come up with empty platitudes time and time again to try ensure them they are safe. Platitudes, which are ultimately proven wrong by the time the next shooting is plastered across the TV screen.
We used to know the names of each event, Columbine, Jonesboro, Virginia Tech. Now, they come so fast and so frequently their names disappear with the news cycle.
Students are subjected to this fear over and over and over again throughout the school year. Students who have to live everyday with gun violence and gang warfare now have to come to school and experience the anxiety and panic of a lockdown. The blatant and deliberate misunderstanding of the Second Amendment keeps schools inflicting this uniquely American mental torture on exposed students over and over and over again.
We have to think about what this repeated cycle of violence, and the responses to it, is doing, actually doing, on a personal and individual level, to all of us, scared kids who will grow up with the steps of a lockdown chiseled in their minds, a world where we make our teachers ask themselves over and over again if they would have the courage to sacrifice themselves for their students. We cannot deny the repercussions any longer.