The Everyday Madness of Teaching Under Lockdown in America
Erica Berry on the False Alarms We Don't Hear About
At first it did not occur to me that anything was wrong. I was walking the perimeter of the school, trying one door after another, wondering why my lanyard wouldn’t let me in. It was a gray Monday in November, and I was three months into a yearlong fellowship teaching creative writing to high schoolers in northern Michigan. For the first time all year, I had left the building for lunch, but now my 30-minute break was over, and students were gathering in the classroom. I was not locked out, my card was just not working, the way the trees molted and now the sun seemed to be not working either.
I nodded at a driver as he pulled his bus into the lot. My students arrived in waves, coming from home schools throughout a rural five counties for free, specialized programming at our school. Some were on this very bus, but I tried not to search for their faces. If I found them, I would wave, and it would be too enthusiastic, like a mother watching her children return from camp. I have always been the oldest sister and the oldest cousin, as much a shepherd as our old dog, and only now—childless in my late-twenties with a nearly indiscriminate maternal reflex—am I trying to fantasize boundaries. To fence my attention. I do not want my students to know that I lie awake worrying about their late-night jobs and absent parents. A wave, I believe, will give this all away. I do not know if I want to avoid embarrassing them, or if I want to avoid embarrassing myself.
The principal’s voice came on the rooftop loudspeaker. We are initiating a lockdown. This is not a drill. My breath stopped, a bubble beneath my wool coat. My body ran.
We had conducted two lockdown drills already, one during lunch just a week or so earlier. Weird timing to have this during passing time, we teachers said. With only some students in attendance. I now see that that was the whole point. I had begun rehearsing the motions of these drills before I fell asleep: lifting the golf club from its perch against the wall, closing the shades, instructing students to swing book-filled backpacks up as vests. I did this because the charade felt foreign to me. I remember elementary school during Columbine, college during Sandy Hook, teaching at a university during Parkland—but through all this horror, we never had a drill. The majority of my current students, on the other hand, have grown up rehearsing lockdowns the way I grew up rehearsing earthquakes in Oregon. Like the shootings they mimicked, the drills had begun to feel almost normal.
School protocol says that if we are outside when the lockdown begins, we should get in cars and flee. Mostly this seemed to apply to students; it had never occurred to me I could be stuck outside. As I neared my car, the loudspeaker announced we were locking down because of an incident on the nearby college campus. This was a relief, but my relief was a dark hallway lined with unmarked doors. Behind each one, a question. How far was that campus? Had shots already been fired? Was someone on the run? Was I in danger now, head bobbing above the cars in the too-empty lot? Or was I foolish to sprint away instead of just circumnavigating to the front entrance where someone, surely, could let me in? I knew my co-teacher was inside, that many other teachers were inside, but still, I wondered: did following protocol mean I was abandoning my students when they needed me most?
Unless you are local, you did not read about our lockdown in the news. A lockdown with no shots is not tragedy, it is procedural. A precautionary measure. A Thank God!, a False alarm! Even if you are a local, you might have missed the headlines. There were only a few. A short this-is-going-on; an only slightly longer this-is-resolved. The follow-up said someone thought they saw a man on campus with a gun, so the college entered lockdown while police searched for him. When they found a man matching the alleged description, he didn’t have a gun. The issue barely came up at the next day’s staff meeting. The end, I guess. We were lucky. Nothing “happened.”Some said the whole thing seemed kind of normal, because they had been preparing for something like it for so long.
What happened is that five minutes after I left school, my co-teacher called. You can come back, she said. They’re calling this a “soft lockdown.” It was clear that she no more understood the term than I did. The school was eerily quiet when I returned. Students jumped when I keyed open the classroom door. Some looked wired, but many just looked ill. The voice on the loudspeaker reiterated that a “soft lockdown” meant we should continue class as usual, just keeping doors locked, students out of the halls, and bathroom breaks to a bare necessity. With the blinds closed, our room was a fluorescent cave. After one student left for the restroom, she had to knock to get back in, and her knuckles on the door made everyone’s eyes Pinball around. Weeks earlier, administrators had approved funding for hallway door-cams. With this camera, we would be expected to keep our doors locked at all times. If I heard a knock, I could watch the screen from my desk and decide if the door was safe to swing open. But we didn’t have those yet, so I just heard my own strange voice ask the girl to confirm her identity through the wood. Some part of me knew I was being too cautious, but some part thought—well, we’re all here, amped up, might as well play safe. Resuming class after all these interruptions was like trying to re-enter REM after being jolted awake.
The next day my co-teacher and I gave the students time to write about their experiences of the lockdown. We told them to record the details of, as Joan Didion writes in “On Keeping a Notebook,” “What it was to be me.” The students bowed over their notebooks. After a few minutes we asked if they were done. They shook their heads. When we finally came together to share, one student said she had spent all class wondering when she could text her mother that she was okay. Another said she had been worried about a brother who attended college on that campus. Another, who had acted immediately to push chairs behind the door, said they only felt panic 20 minutes in, when the adrenaline boiled off and their brain began to shutter. A few said they had heard about other recent threats at local high schools, so they assumed, naturally, that the incidents were related. Some said the whole thing seemed kind of normal, because they had been preparing for something like it for so long. Those were the ones that got me the most.Most days I do not hear the siren. When I do, I watch my students’ faces and indulge a spasm of prayer. Please, no.
Ten days later I was at my desk when my phone lit up with news of the Saugus High shooting in Santa Clarita, California. I dreaded the story even as I knew I could just keep expecting it to return.That night I heard an interview with the father of two students who had escaped. “Why wouldn’t it be here?” he told the radio host. “They go through drills and they do all this other stuff. I mean, they were certainly planning that it could happen. And it was a good thing they did, I guess, because my son knew immediately just run…I can’t say it’s completely unexpected based on just the way things are.”
I would never have envisioned myself in a secondary school classroom a few years ago. I wouldn’t have thought I could do it. Those days my gun panic was like the high-pitched sirens only certain ears could hear. I heard it everywhere: in movie theaters, where I sat near exits and slumped in my seat, and in shopping malls, which I quietly tried to avoid. My senior year of college, I started seeing a therapist because I was finding it hard to jog outside. Every time a car passed, I imagined a bullet leaving the window and stopping my gait, like a hand reached out to swat a fly.
I lived in rural Maine, but my irrationality was the whole point. When I moved to Italy for a job after graduation, I was surprised how immediately my peace arrived. I did not imagine being shot every time I went out in public. Buffered by an ocean, I marveled at how students and educators in America did it: walked every day onto a stage that, as if by some terrible lottery, could turn into a war zone. The answer I could not accept was that they just did not have a choice.
But now I’m back. Most days I do not hear the siren. When I do, I watch my students’ faces and indulge a spasm of prayer. Please, no. The week we went into lockdown was the 46th school week of 2019. At that point there had been 44 school shootings that year, 32 of them in K-12 locations. I realize the statistical odds are low at any one school. I also realize that somewhere out there is a child squinting at algebra and tacking photos on her locker and chewing her pen and she is going to become a statistic and we as a country have decided this is just the way things are.
A 2018 study that reviewed recent peer-reviewed literature about preventative measures U.S. schools are taking to prevent gun violence found no collective evidence that these tactics are working. Instead it found that video-cameras, bulletproof glass and interior-locking classrooms stoke a false sense of security. At the same time, this illusion of safety seems ribbed with nervous desperation. The report noted that “students, parents, and school personnel continue to feel vulnerable, not adequately prepared, or live in fear due to the impression created by hardening of schools.” At least one estimate suggests some students now spend more time in active-shooter drills than they do in after-school activities like plays.
I think about the other statistics that haunt me—about domestic violence, police violence, hate crimes. When I think about those categories, I do not just think of the people turned into numbers, and I do not just think about those who chose not to report. I think about those who live on the shores of almost. Of what-could-have-been; of what if. The problem with, say, rape culture, is not just the statistical number of assaults but also the migraine of moving through a world aware that you could be next. I am used to this shadowy unease. It follows me like a hungry cat. The week of the lockdown a pickup slowed beside my bike on a dark street so the driver could yell Bitch, stay in your lane, and when I jerked my head up to face him—as if my glare could explain I had only moved from the curb because I thought a car was opening its door, as if I needed to explain anything to him—the man was just motoring there, leering, and then he gunned away, and I pedaled along, choked by the feeling.
My reflex narrating stories like this is to swerve to “it could have been worse.” This is the voice of perspective, the voice of my parents, the voice of neatly folded logic. So it feels like a flex of newfound rebellion to let the it speak on its own terms. It does not have to be R-rated horror to accumulate, splinter-like, beneath the skin. Sometimes it feels as if that it contains the whole of, as Didion wrote, “what it was to be me.” If sinking into adulthood alongside the #MeToo movement has taught me anything, it is that things I once consumed as normal are worth a closer look. A party does not have to be a place where a man can pin you against a wall and shout Fuck you when you squirm away. A school does not have to be a place where you fear you might be shot if you leave class to pee.
My first summer in college I guided adolescent girls through Montana’s wilderness. At night I lay sentry on my blow-up mattress, surrounded by the motor breath of all the bodies I had led into the woods. Every now and then I jerked awake because I thought I heard a crinkle in the brush. A grizzly had just mauled a group in Alaska, and I imagined, over and over, how I would puff myself up if one appeared. Was I prepared to charge a bear for these girls? Of course I was, and yet no part of me wanted to put my dedication to the test. I wanted to make out with the boy I texted on my days off and live long enough to move into a house with my own bathroom. So the thing that brought me peace was the knowledge that though we could not control the bears, we could sing on the trail and hang our food in trees and carry bear spray at our hips. This feeling—of working all the laws within our reach—was the thing that always let me sleep.
A few weeks after the lockdown I dreamed I was back in the wilderness, but this time I was about to go white-water canoeing, and this time the teenagers were my current high schoolers. They were beaming, as if they did not know they were about to gulp snowmelt. My memories of whitewater-canoeing in college are as much about the thrill of paddling rapids as the punch of flying into them. Sometimes half a mile or so would pass before we could swim our oars and boats back to the shore. I never knew if I shivered from the cold or from the adrenaline, but I always shook long after I had pulled my body onto the bank. I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.
In the dream I took a seat at the back of the canoe to steer. A student climbed into the front and gave me the thumbs-up. She was nearly frothing with excitement. She did not know how scared I was. I did not let her see it. I smiled back. As we pushed into the rapids, the current bit the bow and tugged. Paddle hard, I told her, but all I heard was water. I raised my little oar.