written by: Carmen Baca
“Lock down, lock down. We are now on lock down.” The receptionist’s voice came over the school intercom over the incessant buzzing of the alarm bells located in every hall of every phase of the building. I thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t in my regular classroom with my fourth period of thirty-one freshmen. I was teaching my last class of the day in the computer lab of phase five, one of the more isolated wings of the large oddly-shaped school where I’d been teaching for years. There were only seven students in class that day, it being a Friday afternoon, and many of the athletes, cheerleaders, and drill team having left to an away game right after lunch.
“C’mon, everyone, into the office now,” I commanded in my teacher voice as I locked the door to the hallway and shut off the lights. I fast walked into the attached office, spotting the group already sitting beneath a long counter we had against one wall, then I locked the door and shut the lights off before joining them cross-legged on the tiled flooring. “Turn off your cell phones,” I reminded. “No noise.” These were juniors and seniors, taking a credit recovery course which I had been overseeing since the high school adopted it to help with our drop out rate.
This was the seniors’ last chance to pass classes with enough credits to graduate in the spring. The alarms had been silenced and only the irritating blinking of the emergency light remained to signal we were still on lockdown. The darn thing was so bright it was almost blue, like those new headlights you meet on the highway at night and have to squint to get past. I was glad none of us had epilepsy because that light might indeed trigger a seizure in someone who looked right at it.
It was so quiet we could hear our own breathing, someone’s nose giving a slight whistle with each breath. I hoped no one farted because if one of us started laughing, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to control my own inappropriate laughter, much less that of the others. We’d had so many of these lock downs in my last decade of teaching that we were all somewhat complacent about them. Yes, we stayed quiet because that was what we were supposed to do, but nothing had ever happened, and so they had become a matter of routine like fire drills.
Outside our little cocoon, the banging in the distant hallways echoed sufficiently that we could hear them all the way over in phases two through four. We knew the administrators and security guards would be going through each hallway, pulling on doors and banging on walls to remind us of the seriousness of the situation. The school had been built right after we entered the 2000s, and architects in their strange wisdom made the building in a series of H’s. Each long leg of the H was a phase—phase one for sciences and math classes. The short hallway holding a couple of offices, then the next leg—phase two—holding the English and history courses, and connecting to the next H which housed phases three and four. We were in phase five, an anomaly which existed by itself like an I, just one long leg hooking on to the bottom end of phase four.
It was a weird but modern building, and I often worried about the fact that we had over twenty-five entrances which were supposed to be locked but sometimes weren’t. This made it possible for anyone to enter different phases and bypassing the office where visitors were supposed to go first to be given a badge with a “V” on a lanyard.
We heard shouting and knew the admins were still making their way through the halls. Woe to the teacher whose door they found unlocked or to the one whose lack of classroom management allowed them to hear any noise from behind walls. The waiting in the meantime could sometimes last for a couple of hours, and since I could see a few of the kids beginning to get antsy, I opened the iPad I had on my lap and drew a “Shhh” on the Note app. Then I put on the video of a book I was teaching my senior lit class and let it play on mute, hoping to keep the students entertained. I took occasional glances at each of the youthful faces before me, Robert, Lennie, and Sam, Laura, Deborah, Rose and JoAnn, all between sixteen and eighteen. They were all great students, and over the last six weeks, I’d gotten to know each of them fairly well.
Robert was prone to bouts of either blustery anger or quiet introspection, but I knew that came from the fact he was homeless and powerless to do anything about it. When I found out he and his mother slept in their car, I let him sleep in the office when he finished his work. I often wondered where he would be after graduation, and to that end I referred him to our guidance counselor to see about getting him financial aid to the community college.
Lennie and Sam were from the ranch, a rural community about thirty miles from town. They came in on the bus, and both came from families of farmers and ranchers. I knew they would continue to work with their fathers and older brothers, growing crops, raising livestock, eventually finding love, marriage, and making a family to carry on the inheritance: the land. That was the way of most of those living in the rural communities around our small city.
Laura and Deborah were both mothers already, and they were determined to graduate and find employment that would enable them to raise their children. JoAnn was dead set on joining the military. Rose and JoAnn were the two who knew they wanted to go to college, the former to become a dental assistant and the latter to counseling. They were already taking a few college courses concurrently. I prayed for each of them as I did for the eighty-six others I had that semester and for the seventy-two, I’d had the previous semester. I wanted all my students to find something in their futures that would make them eager to rise every morning and take life on with gusto. Whether careers or family or both, I wanted them happy with the choices they would make in the search of their own American dreams.
The sudden fist hitting the glass beside the office door made us all jump. The door handle juggled. “Anybody in there?” The vice principal’s voice boomed, followed by another bang and retreating footsteps. Without him using a code word, I knew better than to respond.
Then we heard it—bangs like gunshots from a distance. The footsteps came back running in the direction of phase four. All of us locked eyes. The shouting and the screaming told us this was no ordinary drill. Something was up, and it could be the real thing. I was the only one who knew Nora, the Fire Marshall, had been warning us for weeks that she was planning a live shooter drill, complete with blank gunshots. Was this it? Or was this what we always said would never happen in our little town? I was sure all those other towns and those other schools where the tragedy had become a reality had said the same things.
“We have to run!” Sam whispered. Eyes wide like a frightened animal, he was moving to get up when Robert grabbed him from around the neck.
“No!” He managed to get a hand over Sam’s mouth. “We stay put!” His whisper was frantic, his eyes looked to mine for confirmation.
“I can’t die here,” Laura whimpered, curling into a ball in the corner between the wall and the door to the lab. Deborah and JoAnn wrapped their bodies around hers, and they turned into a feminine cluster of tightly-wrapped torsos and limbs, as though they had melded into one another and would never be separated again.
The last two, Rose and Lennie, snuggled up together, Rose reaching one hand to Sam and pulling him and Robert to wrap themselves around herself and Lennie. The bangs were coming closer, the screams were accumulating, like a wave of noise approaching from the other wings. We sat still and waited for the crest of the wave to hit us head-on. We were helpless to move—there was no exit from the building close enough to avoid the crash of that flood overpowering us before we could even rise to our feet. The tsunami was upon us, and the bangs were right outside the door, the yelling and crying and blows to the wall right behind us.
I felt light-headed like when I fainted once, and I let out a “Dear God, no, not now” under my breath and put my head down as low as I could go while crouched on that cold floor. Suddenly, my entire body was cold, no matter that it was October and I was dressed in layers. I shook with the chill and didn’t have the mental capacity to rationalize that it was hysteria, not temperature, that caused me to freeze.
“I will NOT die here!”
It was the roar that unfroze all of us, and I moved with the seven young individuals I had been cowering with only moments before when Robert rose and grabbed the heavy hole punch from a shelf by the door. He stood ready to clobber anyone who entered. His courage galvanized the rest of us into action, and we followed his lead with animalistic growls and yells from deep in our throats. We would not die here!
Rose held the stapler open like she wielded a boomerang, Lennie and Laura both held heavy textbooks aloft like bats. Sam found a letter opener in the desk and clutched it like a knife as both Joanne and Deborah stood with their backpacks before them like shields. I grabbed a folding chair and did the same.
That damn drill did a number on a great many of us. No matter that it wasn’t real, at the time we were all convinced it was. The terror was the same. Talk about empathizing with those who had gone through and survived the real thing. To come face to face with what could very well be one’s end of life is not an easy event to come back from without after-effects. In teaching us how to survive that moment of taking matters into one’s hands, the authorities who meant well changed our way of looking at life in a profound new reality. I don’t know whether to thank them or curse them for that. But if the real thing ever comes my way, God forbid, I’ll be prepared one way or the other. They taught their lesson well.
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- Interview Q&A With Carmen Baca - January 18, 2022