A different kind of drill

I work as a teacher in the New York City public school system. During my workday, I travel from school to school. Today, I was in one of my schools when they ran a lockdown drill.

There are three kinds of drills that schools are supposed to run during the school year in order to prepare students and staff for emergencies. The fire drill, which has to be run multiple times per school year (I think the required total is ten) is probably the most well-known, but there are two other kinds of drills as well. There’s the shelter drill, for when there is a dangerous situation outside the school, and there’s the lockdown drill, for when there’s a dangerous situation inside the school, such as an intruder with a gun.

Though the schools are, as far as I know, supposed to run at least one shelter drill and one lockdown drill during the school year, it’s clear that today’s drill was, of course, not done at random. Maybe that was part of what made it so unsettling for me.

For most students and staff members, fire drills aren’t scary. They’ve become part of the normal routine in September and June (the warm months), and they can even be an enjoyable experience. Once, I was in a school that got evacuated because there was an actual fire (though it was a minor one), and, even after that experience, fire drills still feel completely routine to me.

In contrast, there’s something downright disturbing about a lockdown drill.

Maybe it’s because a fire drill involves large numbers of students pouring out of a school building all at once. Even though students are supposed to stay quiet during the drill, it somehow feels like we’ve all been freed from the confines of the school. Schools tend to choose the days with the most beautiful weather for fire drills, and it can be a pleasure to spend a few minutes standing outdoors in the warm sun and fresh air.

Lockdown drills are different. Lockdown drills involve hunkering down (and I mean that literally) inside a locked, darkened classroom. Today, especially, with the overcast weather, we were all sitting there in silence in the dark, waiting for the all clear.

Where a fire drill involves being freed from the building, a lockdown drill means being locked inside. A fire drill is about sun and fresh air; a lockdown drill is about huddling in the shadows.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason I felt so disturbed. Maybe it’s because, during a fire drill, we’re practicing how we’d get away from the danger. Once we’re outside, we’re all safe from harm. In a lockdown drill, we aren’t practicing escape. We’re practicing how to go into hiding, and how to stay there as we wait to see whether the danger will pass without harming us. We haven’t left the dangerous situation; we’ve just put up a wall and a locked door between us and it, and locked doors can so easily be broken. (After all, most school doors have glass windows.)

Fire drills are about feeling safe; lockdown drills are about feeling fear.

My student and I spent the drill in the classroom across the hall from where we were working (because I didn’t have the key to lock the office door where we were), and it happened to be a kindergarten room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of five-year-olds sit so silently and so still – at least, not like this. I kept expecting a few of them to burst into tears, and I was surprised when none of them did. Kids shouldn’t need to know how to sit in the dark and hide and wait, how to keep so silent, and not play with the toys within arm’s reach.

I wish that there were no need to have lockdown drills or lockdown procedures in place. It saddens me to watch kindergarteners practice huddling in the silence in the dark.

Of course, it saddens me so much more that, this past Friday, some students’ lives depended on their ability to stay silent while inside cabinets and closets, and that other students lost their lives before they had a chance to run and hide. Today, during the lockdown drill, I was thinking of those students and of those teachers, and I was also looking around at the kindergarteners in that New York City classroom, hoping that they would never, ever have occasion to use the procedures that we were practicing this morning.

As a teacher, I shouldn’t need to worry about these things. I should be thinking mostly about how to make sure that my students learn what they need to learn. I should be doing my best to keep them safe from more mundane dangers, making sure they don’t run with scissors or staple their fingers instead of their class work. I should be double-checking that they wear their coats when they head outside for recess.

I shouldn’t need to think about whether I need a key to lock the office door in case of danger, or whether the room we’re working in has any closets or cabinets that are big enough to hide a student. I shouldn’t need to think about any of that, but clearly, I do need to think about it, and that doesn’t sit well. After the tragedy that happened on Friday, the school buildings where I work feel a little less safe than they did last week or the week before.

I wish I had some magical solution to make all school children everywhere safe from the tragedy that struck on Friday. On facebook, some of my friends say we need better gun control laws, and other say we need better mental health infrastructure. I find myself agreeing with both, but the cynic in me thinks that, once the dust settles, our government will go back to business as usual, and we will get neither.

I wish I could say I had more optimism that something might be done to minimize the danger of someone else getting hold of a gun and turning it on school children, but that cynic inside me — maybe the realist inside me — just doesn’t see it. I wish it weren’t so, but, apparently, that’s the reality we seem to live in.

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2 comments

  1. Judy Gutin

    Rachel, you put into words the emotions surrounding this whole Sandy Hook massacre.. thank you for expressing your thoughts as a teacher & sharing your feelings of frustration as you imagine trying to keep your students safe in a lockdown, rather than the fire drill, where escape is within reach. Hugs, Ema

  2. Jenn

    I feel the exact same way about my students and the safety and security at the school where I teach. You mentioned going to a different room because you couldn’t lock the door where you were. At my school none of the teachers have keys to their classrooms. I have a key because I teach computers and I need to lock up equipment every night. Yes, there has been renewed talk of getting keys for teachers, but in the meantime I keep wondering, if something were to happen here, should I lock my door and hide with students who are in my room at the time or could I risk myself to lock other rooms in my hall in order to protect more children? It’s not a question that can be easily answered.

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