The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion At school, we prepare to be shot at. This is how it feels.

A makeshift memorial is pictured on May 27 for Eliahana Cruz Torres, one of the victims in last week's shooting in Uvalde, Tex. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Allie Carter is an education organizer and former music educator in Maryland.

Do you know what you’re asking of us?

It’s Feb. 15, 2018, at 3:30 a.m., and I can’t sleep. I’m on my third or fourth sketch. My fiance wakes up and asks what I’m doing. I’m trying to find a way to arrange the furniture in my classroom so that both doors can be barricaded if we have an active shooter.

What do I do about the window? Should I buy another bookshelf that we can move to cover it? How can I help my students feel safe knowing that a school a lot like ours was the target of a mass shooting yesterday?

Do you know what you’re asking of us?

A student walks into my classroom, quiet but visibly shaken. She asks if she can stay for a couple of minutes. After a while, she tells me that she saw a man in military uniform walking around with our school resource officer, helping him map out the exit points for evacuation during an active-shooter scenario.

The sight of an armed stranger casually walking the halls of her school has terrified her. She needs a minute to collect her thoughts — to push away the memories of violence in the country her family fled, the gunfire that broke her family — and somehow be ready to focus on algebra. Somehow.

Do you know what you’re asking of us?

It’s the first week of school. Every class is taking turns going over safety protocols. Fire drill, exit here. Severe weather, take cover there. Active shooter, make a choice.

Are they close enough to your classroom that you should stay and hide where you are, or do you have time to get away? If a shooter enters the room, what is near you that you can throw to catch them off balance? Have you practiced running in a zigzag pattern so it’s harder to aim for your body? Is your phone on silent so you don’t give away our position?

We finish our safety briefing and get straight into our lesson, learning music for our upcoming chorus concert. Copies of “The Circle of Life” come out as we turn to Measure 21.

Do you know what you’re asking of us?

“We are entering lockdown.”

A room full of 12-year-olds stop their singing and stare at me, the grown-up, eyes pleading for a comforting response. I have none. I don’t know if we’re safe, so we do what we’re trained to do. Shove the couch to block one door, move a large table to cover the other. All lights out, music off, dreadful silence.

Tearfully, a student asks: “Can I text my mom and let her know I’m okay? I know we aren’t allowed to have phones in school, but —”

“Yes. I’m your teacher and even I’m texting my mom right now.”

We all check that our phones’ sound is off, so notifications don’t call attention to our room.

Do you know what you’re asking of us?

An hour passes, then two. It’s well after class is supposed to have been dismissed. I text my boss at the restaurant to let them know I won’t make it on time for my shift after school.

Thankfully, I have paper on hand for students to draw, write, create — something to distract them. They’re fielding questions from their parents and sharing new intel with me that they’re hearing from the news. There was a shooting a couple of blocks from our school, and they haven’t caught the gunman yet.

“Um, Ms. Carter? I’ve been trying to hold it, but I really have to go to the bathroom. What do I do?”

I text the principal, who says one student at a time may go to the bathroom, which is thankfully next to my classroom but still steps away from a door that leads outside to the parking lot. I insist on stepping out into the hall before any student does, just in case.

Do you know what you’re asking of us?

Yes, you do. But still, you’ll do nothing. Not this time or the next — there is always another. All the while, families will send their children off to school, praying they make it home. Educators will do what they can to help students feel safe, knowing it won’t make a bit of difference when a weapon built to kill is at the classroom door.

You know what you’re asking of us.

You know.

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