It was late morning when the announcement came over the loudspeakers. “We are now in a lockdown, I repeat, we are now in a lockdown: lock doors, turn out lights, out of sight.”
We clicked into gear and went to the hallways to collect wanderers-by, which is the first step in lockdown protocol. The idea is to clear the hallways of all students as quickly as possible. In doing this, there is a chance that you will be responsible for a student that you do not actually know. This happened to me when I picked up a student I’ll call Hector, who happened to be on a tour of the school at the time. I locked the door from the outside and barked at the kids to get away from any windows that would give a line of sight from the hallway into the classroom. My hand turned the lights off with a quick downward motion, and together Hector and my English language development students tucked into the southwest corner of the tiny room.
My students were from places such as Nepal, China, Mexico, and Guatemala, as well as from the U.S. I knew my class very well. I did not know Hector at all.
One of the keys to enduring a lockdown is getting a good seat. Most everyone ends up on the floor, but if you can grab some real estate that butts up against the wall, it is worth its weight in gold. And this is what I was able to do after the kids were all situated, of course.
“What’s happening? Is this real, mister?” the students peppered me with questions. A drill does not usually surpass around 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, though, it became apparent that this was definitely not a drill. Fear kicked in. I tried to keep a veneer of calm for the kids. Cell phones emerged. Students started texting. I wondered to myself, “What is the protocol for texting during a lockdown?” Then I texted my girlfriend. Students texted each other. I texted other teachers. We were all clueless and curious. We adjusted our seats. We settled in.
Alameda High School is in the Jeffco Public Schools system. You may have heard of Columbine. Many of the people I worked with at Alameda had institutional memories of the shootings at Columbine, since it is in the same district. Needless to say, we were situated in a district that takes lockdowns seriously.
We had to go to the bathroom. We waited. We became hungry. We waited. We raided the mini-fridge and ate my colleague Diana Beabout’s lunch. We made small talk. A student watched a movie on her computer with headphones. It is difficult to communicate how long hours of waiting can feel. Or how the hours can pile up until suddenly a large quantity of time has passed.
People are not meant to spend hours consecutively crammed in corners. Particularly kids who are accustomed to a class lasting 50 minutes, tops. The waiting was nauseating. The boredom was palpable. Our hunger for food was trumped by our hunger for information. We just wanted to know what was happening.
A student, let’s call him Roy, motioned for me to come and talk to him.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he said.
“Yeah, we all do,” I said dismissively. To which he beckoned me closer. I leaned down to hear him whisper in my ear, “I have diarrhea!”
Sending Roy out the door to the hallway and the bathroom was not an option because of lockdown protocol, which calls for the students and the teacher to stay in their classroom for the duration of the lockdown.
I learned later that Jill, an English teacher, tried to leave the room and sneak into the bathroom. She was confronted by police officers with guns pointed at her, “Get back in your room! Get back in your room!” they shouted as she awkwardly turned back, creeping with hands raised and mouth agape back into her classroom. Another teacher, Stacey, used a door that was shared with my friend John, a history teacher, to sneak into his room. Then she demanded that John and his TA go into the closet while she urinated into a potted plant. And this: a climate where police pulled guns on teachers, where teachers squatted over potted plants — this was the climate I was in. I can still feel it viscerally more than a decade on.
I am a rule follower, and I was not about to send Roy out into the hallway and have an officer scare the crap out of him. I looked up and saw a side door that separated our room from a neighboring computer lab. You could enter the computer lab without going into the hallway. The lab was empty. If I could get Roy to do his business in a trashcan in there, at the very least, he would have privacy, and I could spare my class and Roy a moment that none of us could come back from.
I turned to Roy and said, “Follow me.” I army-crawled to the door. I reached up and opened the door to the computer lab. Once the door was open, I stood up behind its protection as it was between me and the window to the hallway. I had grabbed a box of tissues. I signaled for Roy using a combination of hand signals that were either inspired by baseball or action movies. I handed off the tissues and transitioned back to the army crawl. I pushed the door shut.
Unfortunately, that was only phase one. I turned to find two students posturing at each other as if they were going to fight. Two of my other students were in between them. Jay was flipping off Hector. Hector was flashing elaborate signs with his hands. My biggest concern was that their voices were raised. Raised voices put us at risk.
I confronted Jay first. “Jay, you have to calm down, man. This is serious. We hafta be quiet.” He heard me. He acquiesced. His body relaxed, and he resumed his position sitting just beneath the sink. He gave me a look that said, “I’m cool, but what are you going to do about Hector?” Good question.
Hector was cursing and continuing to make signs with his hands. He was flipping Jay off. I knew that sign.
I started sternly, “Hector, chill out. Hector. You have to stop. Hector …” But Hector was using an elevated outside voice. He was shouting. I pictured an active shooter roaming the halls, walking past our room, but then turning back at the sound of Hector and his curses.
I remembered Columbine. I remembered a myriad of mass shootings. The urgency of the moment possessed me. My students’ lives were at stake. My life was at stake. Suddenly, and inexplicably, my hands shot out and grabbed the collar of Hector’s T-shirt. “If you will not be quiet, I will kick your ass!” I scream-whispered. I said it without regard to consequence. My sole goal was to survive and to protect my students.
I should also be clear here that Hector would have been the one kicking my ass in reality. I am five-foot-nothing. Hector was not particularly large, but he had that “I’ve been confined too long, and I just can’t take it anymore” look to him. For some reason, my magic trick worked. Hector backed off and calmed down. He slumped back into his seat. He transformed before my eyes from an agitated young man to a scared little boy. I think it was possibly just a shock to his system. Like a crying baby receiving a splash of cold water.
At about that time, Roy re-entered the classroom. In the chaos of the near fight, I had completely forgotten about Roy’s situation. We all resumed our places. Peace had been accomplished. Now, all we had to do was not soil ourselves until the lockdown ended. We re-settled into the monotony of waiting and texting. This is when deep boredom really settled in. We eventually understood that there was no shooter and that we simply had to wait. After four hours, I heard the jingling of keys outside of the door. Per the sound and the texts we had received, we knew that the police were releasing rooms one at a time. We were released and escorted to the gymnasium.
The staff meeting the following day was a poorly run therapy session. I don’t blame them. Who has the answers for these situations? A student had thought they had seen another student with a gun, which was the reason for the lockdown. The principal took questions. I thought about how when people meet military veterans, they often say, “Thank you for your service,” and how in this new world, American teachers are facing experiences similar to the military. The meeting exploded, as meetings often do. A teacher stood up and demanded, “I WANT TO KNOW WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT HOW WE HANDLE LOCKDOWN PROTOCOL GOING FORWARD …” An assistant to the superintendent took questions such as “What do we do when kids have to go to the bathroom?” She avoided direct responses, deftly responding like a veteran press secretary. (As it turns out, some district school teachers got buckets and kitty litter to be used as makeshift toilets in the event of a future lockdown.)
Later that day, I was having lunch with colleagues. We were together as our own group, finally, with no administrators to sully our narratives. We were continuing to process what we had just been through. We were one-upping each other with tales of our lockdown experiences.
One teacher told a story of how a student raised their hand in class and asked, “Is it OK for a teacher to tell a student they are going to kick their ass?”
I slinked in my chair and tried to play cool. Maybe I won’t tell my story …
Andy Bucher is an English teacher at East High School in Denver. He is a husband and a father. He faithfully follows the Chicago Cubs and semi-faithfully rides his bike.