“Safety Drill S is in effect,” echoed the voice of Nancy, our lead secretary, through the intercom. It was a school-wide drill.
The kids knew it. We were already gathered on the rug, so they scooted to the corner by the big, purple bookshelf, and quieted down quickly as I went to shut off the lights and make sure the door was locked. I walked over and closed the shades, and settled down in with my crew on what we call the “hideous chestnut carpet.” We’ve been working on using descriptive words in our writing. It was December 13th.
The following day, Friday, was a busy one. I gave them a science assessment in the morning. We dove into our new non-fiction unit, dabbled with some algebra, and signed a card we had made for Nancy, our main source of communication in the school (as mentioned above), applier of Band-Aids and birthday ribbons, and all around finger-on-the-pulse and keeper of the gates. She’s retiring next week after many years of service.
Nancy’s seen me go through a wedding, the birth of my two babies, the death of my father, and a sad divorce. I’ve heard about all the delicious meals she’s cooked and enjoyed, especially those created by her son, who now has his own life as the owner, proprietor, and chef of a place he opened with his wife in San Francisco. Nancy is always quick to give a hug and ask how things are going. And she genuinely wants to know. She’s also got a flair for fashion and likes bright colors and dragonfly pins.
That is an example of the community I find in my school. There are problems and challenges to face each day, but for the most part, I’d say we try to do it together. There are personality issues and different temperaments. Egos and bad scheduling get in the way, but we do our best to support each other. We’re all people living our lives, working in a school. I have been fortunate to have met and made many friends in my field. I know what teaching means to them. I know how much they care about the kids.
One of my colleagues posted on Facebook the other night, after the shooting at the elementary school. He posed the question, “Where is the teachable moment in all this?” as he pondered the unexplainable tragedy that took place on Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. I’d asked myself that very same thing.
I have to admit that during the safety drill on Thursday, I never actually considered that there might be a shooter in our building. I’m pretty sure none of the kids did either. They weren’t nervous or edgy. There was actually a kind of coziness to it, huddled together on the rug, whispering about possible scenarios, a loose dog or potentially rabid raccoon. A few years ago there was a robbery in the neighborhood, and we had a real lock-down. But a gunman? Things like that don’t happen in our safe, little town.
But evidently they do. And there really is no rhyme or reason for it. But that’s not what I want my students to take away from this.
The shroud of sadness
I didn’t know about the massacre until after I left school a little early on Friday. We have Spanish from 2:30 to 3:00, and the Spanish teacher was nice enough to dismiss my class while I got a jump on my exit and avoided the bedlam of pick-up line traffic.
We had to take my mom to the emergency room the night before, so I wanted to get back to the hospital as early as possible to check on how things were going. The kids knew. I told them where I was going. They were sweet, and were quite supportive, wishing me luck and sending me on my way with a few hugs and some smiles. I even took them outside for fifteen minutes to play four-square on the playground before I had to scoot. They had worked hard all morning, and I needed some recess time too.
I didn’t hear about what happened in Connecticut until I got on the hospital elevator on the seventh floor and headed down to the fourth, where my mom was undergoing some testing. When the doors slid open, I got on with two women. I could tell they were hospital employees. They had their badges on. It’s hard not to eavesdrop in an elevator.
“I just feel like I need to go home,” one said as she hugged her clipboard to her chest.
The other didn’t respond. She simply nodded in agreement. The whole elevator felt heavy with something, but I couldn’t tell quite what.
“Why would anybody do that?” she added, exhaling with a sigh.
I could tell it was something different than the loss of a patient. I could feel it just by looking at them, seeing how their shoulders drooped and their eyes were full of pain. “I’m sorry to be nosy, but what happened?” I asked. “It’s just that you…”
They told me the basic facts. The ride was short. When we stepped out, we stayed for a moment, facing each other and smiling in shared bewilderment. We wished each other well. I could feel that too. It felt better than the shroud of sadness that covered us in the elevator.
What I want my students to know
When I found the waiting room, I found the television on, a reporter detailing the events as they were developing. I couldn’t watch for very long. I thought about the shooter drill at school the day before. I shared my disbelief and confusion with those seated in the rows of chairs around me. We bonded over the insanity we were watching unfold.
Nobody can ever know why this young man thought it was a good idea to gun down a classroom full of children. I can’t imagine what the families who suffered this incomprehensible loss are experiencing right now, as I sit here writing these words to vent my own frustration at the senselessness of it all.
I can speculate all I want about motive. I can blame this boy’s parents. I can blame his doctors. I can blame his teachers, or the bullies he may have encountered during his formative years. I can blame a broken education system, a broken health care system. That’s not going to help change anything, and it’s certainly not going to help me find a teachable moment in all of this madness.
I guess what I want my students to know is that they are loved. That if they need someone to talk to, there is someone who will listen, if they have the courage to speak up and ask for help. Our classroom is a micro-community. So is our school. We spend a lot of time together, and our success or failure comes from all of us doing our part to be tolerant of each other’s shortcomings and to practice understanding and empathy for others.
Do I screw up sometimes? You bet. Have I been frustrated and said something I regretted? Yup. Do I own up to it and apologize publicly to the kid who was the unfortunate recipient of whatever reactive quip I blurted out instead of keeping it in my head? Double Yep. It’s part of the human condition, making mistakes. Kids are great. They forgive easily.
As I sat in the waiting room, I thought about what would happen on Monday morning when I saw my class for the first time since the shooting. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I imagined I would find some “teachable moments” and many other moments where the kids would give me something to ponder, when they would teach me something. I am lucky. There are many moments like that.
Children remind me how to live happy and free. When I am with my class, we don’t worry if a kid who had a whole sack full of troubles in his past will charge in at any moment with a semi-automatic weapon. We don’t consider that this could actually happen, and that there would probably be no warning signal delivered via intercom to announce his arrival.
What we can do is spend our days focusing on positive things like exploring the possibility of using alternate forms of energy; working cooperatively to research the effects of deforestation in the rain forest; or discussing character development and the emergence of positive character traits inside our protagonists and within ourselves.
We can laugh with each other and do our best to work as a cohesive unit toward a common objective, learning and growing together.
It isn’t easy to watch the struggles my kids have at school and to hear about the ones they are having at home. I have one or two struggles of my own, so I try to listen to theirs, invite open communication with their families, and do my best each day to pass on a smile.
I want my students to know that I’m a person too. That’s why I told them about my mom being in the hospital. When we share our lives with other people, we learn much more than curriculum. There are always teachable moments. Life’s tragedies can offer us an opportunity to look for them, no matter how daunting that may seem amidst the horror that exists in our world.
Monday morning came
We had an early faculty meeting before school. We wore green and white to honor the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and consoled each other in the library as our principal spoke with us about how best to help the kids through this experience. Then it was time to pick up our classes and start the day. I wasn’t worried about how the kids would react. They’re my kids. We know each other pretty well. We’d figure it out together.
It’s strange. The kids didn’t ask too many questions or make too many remarks during our morning meeting. A few made comments about bad people doing bad things. I acknowledged the sadness of it all, but tried to keep the focus on how lucky we all really were to have what we have. Then I mapped out our day for them. They like to know what’s on the schedule. They like to know what to expect.
I’d adjusted my lesson plans. I decided to focus my Non-Fiction Reading Workshop unit and my Social Studies lessons on news articles that explained a variety of creative efforts that were being made to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy get back on their feet.
We took a close look this week at the good in people. It seemed to me to be the right way to help a community of nine and ten year olds deal with tragedy. And it helped me too.
Mary C. Tarashuk has been teaching fourth grade in Westfield, New Jersey for 14 years. Her enjoyment of hiking and nature inspired her to incorporate the outdoors into her teaching. She’s been an integral part of bringing cultural arts assemblies into her school, presented new instructional strategies at district-wide parent information nights, collaborated with colleagues to revise her district’s mathematics curriculum, and is currently writing her first novel, Behind the Doors of the Teachers Room.