This story is by Linda Kiefer and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I hurried, carrying a backpack and tote that weighed more than I did, and struggled to balance the papers, books, and files, as I set my paraphernalia down gently enough that I didn’t dump it all.
I rushed to the whiteboard, erased yesterday’s reminders and algebraic equations, and wracked my mind for a challenging, inquisitive question to be searched out and answered by the end of the day. Finally, I wrote the day and date in the upper right-hand corner. Naturally, I dragged my hand through other writing. I corrected it and raced over to wash, taking a deep breath.
I bemoaned the space in the small room that would hold 25 individual work rugs and five small desks, then placed the rugs and name tags carefully. I encouraged working in pairs, but I thought it out carefully so that everyone would feel accepted and productive. I counted again, checked the mated tags, and grinned.
Coffee! Can’t start a day without the essentials! I put a cup under my single brew coffee maker, then placed the silly white cup with dancing moose onto the warmer. Last look around, and three steps to the spot just inside the door.
Right on time: Eleanor came in first, her Hello Kitty backpack slung over her shoulder as we greeted one another. Multiple children between six and nine then became a full onslaught of giggling, chattering and good natured arguments as we all at least made eye contact. Some offered a little hug, some high fives or variants. Soon the room was abuzz with each settling at their work space and Work Plans, automatically readying for a work they chose to begin their day. Then the last stragglers filtered in. I knocked the doorstop away from the doors; the room quieted as though under a bell jar.
Everyone was doing something different, twenty-eight occupied ping pong balls. I walked over to crack a window to the morning breeze, then quietly walked to my rug under the white board. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor wasn’t as easy as it was ten years ago, but I could still manage it with grace, thankfully. Getting up was harder.
I had a group of first graders come up to work with me using manipulative tiles that made multiplication easier for them, then sent them back to practice with a buddy or alone. I pulled out a long timeline of the evolution of man and invited my three third graders. I rolled it out slowly, allowing them to examine the discovery of tools, the results of recurring ice ages, and other items that interested each. They finished and went back to their work.
A six year old came up asking if she could read to me from a book written for much older students, and she read flawlessly. This one I often found with a book hidden inside an open dictionary, as though I wouldn’t notice. I smiled at her progress and sent her back to her Work Plan after asking questions that checked her comprehension. As she got up, she closed the window as it began to storm.
With kids, a storm could be a major event due to scary noises, or for study of clouds by a few. Certainly not everyone was fond of thunderstorms; one child often ran to take refuge in the lavatory.
Most stopped to chat briefly, then went back to their work, as did I. As I did my best to stand straight up smoothly, I walked to the young one with severe anxiety, talking quietly and reassuring him. Then I helped him find the problem in his division using a bead board.
I marveled at what these children were accomplishing independently, and how much more they would progress.
Even as I smiled at the wonders of potential, a noise outside our room alarmed me to the point that my heart sank and beat a staccato all at once. A male voice, not one I recognized, yelling angrily at the entrance to the building. It was escalating rapidly. Our door was the first visible classroom, in the center of the open space we used for everything from lunch and gym to a quiet workspace for large maps and timelines. I mentally took a headcount inside, even as a code of a single air horn sounded. Then the first shots rang out. I reached for the drop lock on our wooden door;I unwound the construction paper roll to both block visual access and let staff know I had all accounted for. The worst possible event in any teacher’s mind was unfolding.
The lock was stuck and I was standing in front of the wooden door. I kept reaching up for the lock as I urgently called the students to hide behind the bookshelves that were fronted by a cement wall behind the library in the lunchroom. Children were whimpering, being led by three brave third graders, encouraging them to get down and make no noise. One dropped the window shades on the opposite wall. Shots rang out as if they were next to us at a firing range- and I still had the door only partially locked. Sweat dripped down my back as I lost count of the shots. At least two had hit and splintered the door that I was still standing in front of. A blessed third level slid me a chair so I could wiggle the lock in place. More shots at the door and sporadic shots echoed through the library/ lunchroom space.
Having finally gotten the lock in place, I took a space on my knees so everyone was able to see me. I held a semi-steady finger before my lips and mimed holding the hand of a friend or holding hands over ears. I made certain I had all my charges, silently counting by the number of each level present. They were whimpering and I had to consciously prevent the same response. None of us signed up for this. I’m sure we didn’t- and I’d check my contract tonight if we lived. Shots amazingly still rang out, but we could hear sirens as well.I prayed they were coming here, even as I tried to reassure my charges. Those pale tiny faces looked to me as though I could make it all okay. I couldn’t even be sure it was safe to escape through the back door in our room.
I talked softly to the kids, my little responsibilities, trying to soothe them through the sound of bullets, including the ones still hitting our door and fireproof observation window I’d covered. I vaguely wondered if it was bulletproof, not willing to check. I tried so hard to whisper that everything would be okay, but not to move. The sirens had stopped wailing in the front, but I had no idea what else was happening. I recalled one of the children had a father with the State Police, and fervently prayed she wouldn’t bolt to look for him.
There was noise echoing outside the door, but no more shots. I begged the children to stay put. I had no recall what the All Clear was for ‘Active Shooter’ situations. Waiting seemed prudent. We’d do that. I grabbed the two nearest Kleenex boxes and slid them in front of the children. Still quiet, but where was the intruder? Of all times, I mused how I might rearrange my book shelves that night.
Waiting quietly isn’t easy for that many rattled children. I duck-walked down the whole row, touching each shoulder, reassuring them, sometimes telling them it would be over soon and asking a critical thinking question they enjoyed. We’d never played that at a whisper with sniffling going on. I was astounded how many tried. It was quieter outside the locked door. I debated if it was safe to take them outside, but I had no idea where the shooter was- or if he still was.
It seemed like hours to all of us until the sheriff knocked, identifying himself. I crept to the long fire window to check, then unlocked the deadbolt. I went alone. Slowly opening the door a bit, I was met with a scene from some chaotic movie, and was told to take the children to the playground via our back classroom door. There was blood and a body steps away.
The shared assistant came from next door and got both rooms. The kids resiliently followed her out the back to play as though nothing had happened. I let the door fall shut on the Sheriff with silent gratitude, leaning back against the door jam and sliding to the floor. Eleanor turned and blew me a kiss as she ran out. I love teaching.