The first time I passed through a metal detector, I was walking into a high school to attend my first day of class in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was 16 and an exchange student. It was my first solo experience abroad, and Sao Paulo was an eye-opening warren of skyscrapers, frenetic traffic and the kind of big city-ness I had only seen before on television. The school I attended there was nothing like my suburban high school in central Florida. This inner city school towered 12 stories high and looked more like an office building or a corporate headquarters; the metal detector framed the front door.
I didn’t think much of it then. I think about it a lot now.
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Valentine’s Day, I was kept from restful sleep by a string of nightmares. In them, I am the grown up in charge, The One responsible for the safety of a school full of squealing, carefree children. Unspecific threats imperil us, and I lurch down long corridors, entreating students to take cover, hide. My voice is shrill. Panic escalates me into frantic. The louder I yell, the less the students seem to hear me. As I continue to beseech them to run toward safety, I twitch myself awake, my chest coated in sweat. And then I weep, my mind blank, my sense of a benevolent world shattered. I grope for alphabets, language and words to soothe myself and make order from chaos. I find none.
Not so long ago, I spent a year and a half as the lead administrator at FALA. One of my duties was to ensure that the school complied with the state-mandated regulations designed to keep the students safe and learning. In addition to fire drills, we also conducted lockdown drills. During that time, schools in Flagstaff had been subjected to a ghoulish spate of bomb threats that turned out to be hoaxes. To comply and prepare for the horror that we hoped would never visit us, I initiated the first lockdown drill I had ever participated in.
During a lockdown, teachers lock classroom doors, go silent, turn off lights and huddle with students far away from doors or windows. Teachers are instructed not to open the door even if the voice outside identifies itself as police. One of my jobs was to unlock the classrooms at the end of the drill.
As the drill began, I felt the amphetamine of adrenaline, the wingspan of my responsibility. The administrative staff moved through the paces as a unit, fine tuning our protocol. The police arrived and moved through their maneuvers. It was then my task to go to the classrooms.
I can’t shake the image of the first door I unlocked. As the door opened, my eyes strained to adjust in the darkness. In the far corner of the room a few dozen middle school children clustered against their teacher like frightened animals. They sat on the floor; her arms were around them like a protective cape. A few were crying. One boy had wet his pants. They looked up at me with terror, and the world split open. Trauma thickened the dark air, and it felt as if their innocence was physically escaping from each of them like a gas leak. My rational mind cleared its throat to begin the speech that would remind me of why this was necessary and important, but I was flooded with all of their fear. And mine.
When the drill finished, we held a school debriefing and encouraged students to talk about their experiences. Some were so shaken they called their parents and went home. There were group hugs, soft voices, consoling teachers, unspeakable scenarios alive in our imaginations. After the debriefing, I went into the faculty bathroom and vomited. That night the nightmares began, the ones that returned after the Parkland, Florida, massacre.
I can rattle off the names of high schools around the country where students have been slain in horrific mass shootings, but I cannot name a handful of high schools where students have been honored for their outstanding artistic achievements. If arming teachers is an answer to something, the only question that idea could be paired with is: How might we abdicate all reason and contribute to this spiral of violent madness?
I don’t know how to end this.