On a recent Tuesday morning, my school principal came on the intercom to announce we would be practicing an emergency management drill. The drill required that no students be allowed to leave the room, but instruction was to go on as usual. Other drills are more inhibiting, though. A more restrictive drill requires me to lock my door and windows, turn off the lights, ignore bells and alarms, and gather the students away from all entry points until notified by announcement.
Later that afternoon, I sat on a rickety blue chair at a desk dotted with old gum, gulping down my packed sandwich in the 25 minutes allotted for lunch. I thought about asking my colleagues what they thought about the effectiveness of the drill, but I imagined the room would get quiet — mouths full, pulses quick. I didn’t want to feel more powerless and panicked than I did when we last talked about the latest school shooting. Instead, I asked whether everyone had finished their Christmas shopping.
I don’t hold the power that President Trump does with 280 characters, nor do I possess the persuasion of the NRA or the policy power of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But I do have something that has lately become of exponentially increasing value in the school shooting debate: a teacher’s body.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration rolled out a report on school violence that’s been in the works since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February. The report had little to say about gun control. Instead, it urged schools to defend themselves with more guns, echoing statements President Trump has made numerous times since 17 students and staff members were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Armed teachers, not more thoughtful gun laws or comprehensive mental health care, are apparently the answer. We are the ones tasked with stopping a mass murderer.
I live and teach in Revere, Mass., arguably the most liberal state in the country. And yet, every day I feel closer to being thought of as armor for stopping a gunman instead of an educator. Every day, each state looks less “red,” less “blue.” Instead, the country has turned a deep shade of purple, an overwhelming bruise of hurt and loss.
After every school shooting, my principal calls a staff meeting. He demands stricter enforcement of teacher and student ID badges worn around our necks. He puts vice principals at each entrance as the morning bells ring. He urges us to be more vigilant about only letting one student out of the classroom at a time. As he drones on about safety and security protocols, my colleagues nod their heads, but my mind is racing with fatal scenarios that all end with the same question:
After the Sante Fe High School shooting earlier this year, I lay in bed as my fiance snored beside me. I thought about the black bookcase in the back of my classroom filled with battered dictionaries and copies of “Othello." I squeezed my feeble arms. I got out of bed and lay my back on the icy tile of my bedroom. I did 50 sit-ups. I did as many push-ups as I could.
The following morning, I was weary as I stood in the doorway of my classroom as students passed through the hallway. I forced unnatural smiles. I high-fived former students with extra enthusiasm. I made eye contact with every student whose hood sloped over his head, whose headphones blared, whose backpack slouched unzipped on one shoulder.
I closed my door as soon as the bell rang. Five minutes later, I jumped at the sound of a pounding fist on my door — a late student with a nurse’s pass.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, a shooting that feels like a lifetime ago because of the number of massacres since then, I held a gathering with my ninth-grade students. They spoke of their sadness, their anger. I spoke with tears in my eyes.
“You know I would do anything I could to protect all of you,” I said.
That morning, my students met me with hugs for my selfless words, but with each shooting, with each added ounce of blood that spills, I feel that selflessness waning, feel my fear rising. I have envisioned countless scenarios. I have mapped out escape routes, hiding spots, defensive talking strategies. But in each imagined scene, I don’t get deemed a hero. My picture doesn’t appear on cable news stations across the country. There are no vigils held in my honor. I survive. That’s all.
I’m no more a shield than my black bookcase, and yet I feel this pressure to be. I feel ashamed for not knowing what I would do in such a dangerous situation. Would I duck and cover with my students, just as terrified?
Each year, I am asked to do things beyond my job description, participate in building-improvement committees, organize fundraisers, write college recommendations, but this ask — my life — is beyond what I think I’m capable of giving.
Sarah Chaves is an author and educator in Boston.