Even the most tranquil of school spaces aren’t able to keep out the force of permeating fear

— Photo from Heather Bryer

Studying al fresco: Farnsworth Middle School students work outside their school on a nice day.

To the Editor:

I heard about the shooting in Texas hours ago on my drive home from the school where I have taught for 15 years. Today’s shooting hit particularly close to home — not literal distance; after all, we were hundreds of miles away from the cries of terrified children as they were gunned down.

But a figurative close in my mind. You see, today, I decided to take my students out to the school courtyard. It’s a tranquil little garden area in the middle of our school building, so it’s completely enclosed. The last time I thought to bring my students there to write, it was on an announced day of a lockdown drill.

For those who don’t speak school lingo, this is the dreaded drill where we stop our learning at the prompt of a voice over the loudspeaker blaring, “LOCKDOWN.” From there, I am to calmly look into the hall for stray children, lock my door, turn of the lights, and hunker down with 30 awkward growing adolescent bodies as close to out of the line of sight we can get.

Then we just wait in the quiet; 30 breaths inhaling and exhaling into the weight of the seemingly empty room. A shake of the doorknob eventually comes, sometimes early in the drill, and sometimes much later.

Although we strain our ears to listen for it, we all still recoil at the sound. An administrator opens the door and takes my attendance sheet and we return to our lesson, ignoring the fact that we didn’t just practice how to best prepare for what might someday be our untimely deaths.

So on that day of the lockdown drill, I wanted to keep things simple. What was the protocol if students were in the courtyard? Where would I go? The stress of having these factors out of my control led me to do business as usual in my sauna-like classroom even though the spring air beckoned.

But today, today was one of those days the body just aches to go out and soak in some sun. So I brought my morning class out into the morning light, let them choose a patch of shade or sun, and let them get lost in their writing.

I was initially relieved that they could work here freely without the burden of a drill to worry about, when I started to consider that today could be the day of a lockdown that wasn’t a drill. And for a moment, I asked myself, what would I do given different scenarios — played them out in my head — thought of where we would hide or where we would run, all as I watched students with clipboards sitting criss-cross applesauce, the grass tickling their bare toes while others were perched on benches, as they braced for the next breeze to flicker their papers.

Time stood still as I thought about the beauty and danger of this here and now.

Now, I don’t have a psychic bone in my body; I have never won more than two dollars on a lottery ticket. The reason I thought these things on this day was not because I was in tune with the carnage that was happening so many miles away, but because the chances of my thinking about an event like this transpiring and it actually existing on the same day are just that great.  

When I got home, I began to scroll through my newsfeed and read the headline, “2018 has been deadlier for schoolchildren than service members” sandwiched there between details of the royal wedding and commute-disrupting volcanoes. Days like this have been normalized and now blend into the buzz of the world.

I was then reminded of a conversation I had with a student on our way out of the courtyard. He had pointed out a crushed robin’s egg that was lying off to the side by a stone pathway and said, “What could have gotten it?”

I told him that squirrels were known to grab robin’s eggs.

He replied, “But it should have been safe in the middle of the school. What could get in to hurt it?”

I see so much more in his question now. Today students were able to play in this creative place — but more and more even the most tranquil of school spaces aren’t able to keep out the force of permeating fear.

Heather Bryer


Editor’s note: Heather Bryer is an English teacher at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland.

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