By Katrina Clark
Kids chatter. This is my life as a 9th and 10th grade teacher. They chatter incessantly. It drives me crazy. That’s who they are. So we move on.
But I’m not looking forward to this lockdown drill. I’m in another teacher’s classroom supporting and this group tends to be extra chatty. Now we have to block out the light, sit on the floor in the corner. Silently. I know this is impossible and I never feel good about having to do impossible tasks. It feels like a set up for failure. I also have no interest, not this time, of explaining why being silent is so important. That if someone sneaks into our school and is ready to attack we want the person to think there is no one in this room. This room is not being used right now. You should just keep on walking and shoot someone else. It is not worth your while to try and look for us here. Go shoot someone else. I am NOT dying today. No, sir.
This almost strikes me as amusing. In our tiny school. In this even tinier classroom, that was carved out of an actual classroom split into two there is no space that is not used. Anyone with a personal vendetta from our school knows that. We are fooling no one. And anyone from outside of our school family… Well, if they skipped us, then they would get somebody else. We are packed to the brim. Any bullet shot will hit someone. But our goal, at least at this moment, is to be so still and silent that the shooter does not recognize the existence of humanity in this room and moves on. Survival of the fittest. Or at least most silent . . .
It has been 42 days since a student of Stoneman Douglas High School walked into school with an AR-15, not seeing the humanity of his fellow students-- and my guess, of himself-- and shot 17 people dead. The school had no metal detectors. The school had a scared security guard. The school was not used to this type of violence. So 17 people, ages 14 to 49 lost their lives. And the students decided to speak up. They, in fact, got the attention of the world.
In Philadelphia, in our tiny school, students recognized their screams. They knew this pain, of losing life too young, of witnessing senseless violence and trying to make sense of it. They already had been writing poetry about loved ones lost, writing essays about gun control, conjuring images of dead bodies, lost to the long-term effects of slavery and capitalism. They had already screamed Black Lives Matter and watched more young, Black lives inked out repeatedly. They were ignored.
Yet, they chose to speak again. Parkland students called for a nationwide walkout on March 14th against gun violence. Our students recognized this call. They knew the words and feelings intimately. So they organized. As a teacher, I have witnessed the pain pouring from their pens and wanted so badly for them to take action. I have felt impotent at asking them to take action in the face of all they face daily. But this time was different. I gathered in the room as students had a lunch time meeting. Not to teach or lead, but as an ally to them and their cause. I listened as they summarized the messages they wanted to share. I took some notes while they spoke. I listened.
Days later I rolled our PA system out to the front of the school. My job was to charge it. I dropped the mic into one of their hands and saw their words float to heaven, a hundred angels soaring straight upward, gathering with a million other voices. I am not a religious person by any means. But I heard these words and they were nothing less than prayers and pleas for change. They sought out something within all of us--but especially within our nation’s leaders. I think they sought humanity in some of the darkest places I have had opportunity to witness, in the minds and hearts of politicians, of adult leaders, of us, those who have let them down, left them to die.
And the emotions I felt when their peers rose up from across the world and gathered together in Washington, D.C.--and Philadelphia and New York and San Francisco and London. I was filled to the brim and overflowing as Emma Gonzalez made us wait for 6 minutes and 20 seconds in silence, the amount of time it took to erase 17 lives. She made us feel every second with all of the embarrassment and fear and waiting, just waiting. Hearing gunshots ring out but just waiting. Watching lives drop from existence but just waiting. Having no way of knowing when this horror story would end, she made us wait.
And today I find myself waiting in a different kind of silence, with twelve 9th graders in a landlocked room, a window to the hallway blocked, door locked. They knew it was a drill and settled immediately. And all of these thoughts and feelings flooded to my mind, how we have taught them to be silent, taught them to be still. We have taught them to have the cool, calm, collectedness of a soldier prepared to die. I never reprimanded one student for chatting. Not one did. We waited.
As we could hear the counselor knocking on the door of each room to assure everyone that all was okay, that it was safe to come out of hiding, a young girl described her last lockdown drill in elementary school. “They didn’t just make us sit and wait. They had a man try to break into each door. He pulled and rattled at the doorknob. He screamed for us to let him in. But we wouldn’t. He was just screaming down the hallways.”
My heart dropped. We have prepared a generation of children to be silent, to wait out the chance that they will be killed by a gun, in their own schools, in their own communities. We, as a nation, refuse to change the conditions of their lives. We make them wait. We make them count the 15 years of Tyhir Barnes’ life until he dropped before us, another life taken. We make them count the 12 years of Tamir Rice’s life before he is shot in a park. We make them count. 1, 2, 3 . . . 629 teenagers killed or injured by guns in 2018 alone. We make them mask the presence of their humanity until the danger has passed.
It never passes. It will not pass. Not until we decide to change. We cannot be the ostrich with its head buried in bloody money, pretending that we don’t see our children dying. But, if we decide to wait, let it be as painful as watching Emma Gonzales watching us, feeling the echoes of our babies dropping to the ground, hearing the bullets ricochet through a generation who is desperate to live and whom we are desperate to ignore.