The Keys to the Classroom
by Lynn Garthwaite Olsen, January 2015
I carry the keys to the classroom on a chain around my neck, along with my photo ID, and a list of all the children in my care. This morning, realizing my hands were full, I tried to open the door without taking off the chain. The opening door nearly choked me as it dragged me into the room. I was startled to see bookshelves where they didn’t belong, even though I was the one who had moved them. I flicked on the lights and set my bags down on the reading table. I usually smile at this quiet moment, before the children arrive full of energy and questions. Today, I stopped short, sighing at the red tape that marked the floor.
“Don’t worry so much about them being silent,” Officer Jim, our School Resource Officer or SRO, had whispered to me the day before. “If anything happens, it will be noisy. Probably very noisy. Your job is to keep them all safe.”
“Well, we practiced. We already had our school lockdown drill,” I told him quietly. “They know where to go to stay out of sight.”
“That’s exactly what we don’t want,” he replied, suddenly steely-eyed. “We don’t want them to think for a minute that they know what to expect. We just want them to listen to you and to do whatever you tell them to do.”
“Okay,” I gulped, beginning to understand that this was anything but the routine lockdown talk the email had suggested.
Officer Jim was our third SRO this year and he clicked with the students immediately. He usually walked the halls “high-fiving” all the kids he passed and he knew many of them by name. Officer Jim knew their backstories, too. I sensed that his current change in demeanor might be in response to the possibility of a very real threat.
“You know,” he continued, “we practice fire drills twelve times each school year. Statistically, we’re now far more likely to have a school intruder than a fire, yet we only officially practice the lockdown once a year.”
“What do you suggest? What about the windows?” My voice felt frantic. On more than one occasion, I’d seen a high school student pop through the window to visit with a former teacher or a parent who worked in the building. No air conditioning meant that our windows were wide open for much of the year. Suddenly, those gaping windows made me feel vulnerable.
“Intruders are not statistically likely to approach through the window.” The kids had their heads down on their desks while Officer Jim conducted this hushed conversation with me near the door. “Show me what you do now.”
“Okay, crew, pick up your heads and listen carefully,” I said in my calmest voice. My hands were sweating suddenly and I knew the kids had already sensed the change in atmosphere. When I called “Lockdown,” they scurried to their spots and tucked in their knees while I locked the door and turned out the lights. Officer Jim shook his head wordlessly and asked to speak with me after the class went to Gym.
“They all need to be together, in one spot.”
“Oh. I can make eye contact with everyone from where I stand.”
“No. They all need to be with you and not in planned spots. Wherever you tell them to go. The bookcases can’t stay this way. You need to move them.”
“Right now? The school year is nearly over.”
“I suggest you put tape on the floor so the kids know where they have to be. And the door needs to be kept locked. All the time. Every day.”
“All day?” Children in the class are free to use the bathroom as needed and many support people are in and out of the classroom during the course of a day. I knew there would be interruptions. Lots of them.
In just a few moments, our classroom atmosphere, our classroom routine, and our physical classroom had all been upset. Of course, I wanted the children to be as safe as possible. I moved furniture. We practiced. Our custodian brought red tape to mark the floor. We were as ready as we could be. Somehow though, everything felt changed. I knew that our SRO was doing his job. I trusted him and I followed his instructions but I wondered if he had any idea of the impact his visit had on the rest of our year.
I have a habit of reflecting on the day as I drive the half-hour from school to home. It bothers me that people talk about "school shootings." Schools aren't being shot. Kids are. I cried all the way home on the day of the Newtown tragedy. I wept again today.