One Tuesday morning, the school secretary stopped me on my way to the classroom. “We’re having a Code Red drill this morning,” she whispered, “in case you want to just wait to go in until it’s over.”
I demurred; I had heard grumblings about Code Red drills — practicing emergency plans in the case of armed persons or active shooters on campus — from other parents, and I wanted to see what one entailed for myself. Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, our school’s front doors had been locked, as had those of individual classrooms. “Code Red” drills were a new development since my older children had been in elementary school.
I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal, but when the time came and the alarm sounded, I still felt a bit of a jolt. My son’s teacher, a woman with four very young daughters of her own, ushered the children into the classroom bathroom calmly. She and I entered last and she locked the door behind us and turned off the light.
With just the shimmer from the teacher’s iPhone to light the tiny room, I knelt on the floor beside the same 18 children to whom I usually tried to explain what a fraction was. They clustered around the toilet and beneath the sink, frozen, their small eyes peering up at their teacher’s face expectantly. A few times, someone would giggle or prod a neighbor or rock back and forth on their heels, hands with chipped, glittery nail polish clasping their knees.
“Boys and girls,” Mrs. S whispered firmly but calmly. “We have to be absolutely silent. If this was a real emergency, you wouldn’t want the … anyone … to be able to hear you.” She kept her facial expression even, but I winced, because in my head, I finished her sentence: “… Because then, the shooter might find us and kill us all.”
I remember that when I was a student at the very same elementary school where my son attends now, I used to worry about nuclear war. I was born in 1974, and I grew up at the end of the Cold War era. Although I don’t remember holding drills in school, I do recall thinking that drills would be useless anyway, because if nuclear war broke out, we’d all die. I felt small and helpless and scared.
Then 10-year-old Samantha Smith wrote to Yuri Andropov, the newly minted leader of the Soviet Union, in 1982, asking him if he would vote for war and what he was doing to prevent war. I was 8 years old that year, and I very much identified with her. I watched the news coverage when Andropov replied to her letter and she was invited to visit the country, which seemed to me like an impossible fairy tale, like a something out of a movie. I felt hope then, like maybe when we stripped away all the complications adults carried with them, children could reduce even big, complex problems down to their simpler truths, and the truth in that case was that nobody wanted a war.
“We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country — neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government — want either a big or ‘little’ war,” Andropov told Samantha. “We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.” Soviets loved their children, too. That was reassuring.
Outside my son’s class bathroom door, we heard a distant echo of footsteps in the school hallway, and someone rattled the locked classroom door. There was a pause, and then the steps faded away again.
My eyes searched that tiny, dark bathroom full of silent, crouching second graders, and I thought, Nobody wants a war. Yet here we are, kneeling on a cold tile floor, holding our breath. Do they know why? Do they understand the stakes if there was a “real emergency?” The threat for me lived across the globe; the threat to my own children might live across the street.
The principal’s voice boomed across the school intercom system; the drill was over. We all pulled ourselves up and we stepped out into the relatively striking brightness of the fluorescent classroom lights. The desks were as we left them, copies of “Harry Potter” waiting in a few of the corners, a half-drunk water bottle with the name “Matthew” written in permanent marker on the side on one, a small aqua blue cardigan draped across a seat back.
The children walked back to their seats quietly, still wondering if it was completely safe to speak, and I took my place back in front of the white board. My hand shaking a little bit, I looked back at the screen, the numbers swimming in front of me. “Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath, “Now, where were we?”
My first Code Red drill shook me, and yet my children are doing several of them a year, my older children putting their backs against their middle school classroom walls and hunching down in the dark so they can’t be seen from windows or doorways. At first, they were shaken by them too. Now, it’s routine. That in itself makes me feel as if we have lost some critical battle somewhere along the way.
This is an education I wish my children didn’t have to receive. But this weekend, in our hometown, we were reminded that it is necessary. We live in Orlando, home of Disney World, a place where childhood is celebrated and fairy tales have happy endings and wishes come true — and now the site of the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States.
Today, I am desperately wishing that children could again convince the world that enough is enough; that nobody wants a war, that nobody needs an assault rifle, that love is stronger than hate and love always wins. I am wishing that no other mother need wait to hear if her child was mowed down by a crazy person in a senseless act of violence. And today I know for certain that we have lost something. I am only hoping it is something we can find again — for ourselves and for our children.
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