“Confessions of an Educator” columnist Chris Margolin talks about the fear in the back of every teacher’s mind: the nightmare scenario of a school shooting.
Before my old building went through a major remodel, the layout made it so I would have to turn off two separate alarms, more than 100 feet apart, with two separate alarm codes within thirty seconds in order to get to my room without setting off the silent siren and bringing in Chuck, the old man, hat falling off his head, security guard with pants sort of staying up by a belt that could have wrapped around him twice. He never remembered me, which was odd given the amount of times I had not successfully made the necessary Mission Impossible maneuvers to safely make it into my dingy, dirty classroom.
I used to head into my classroom pretty close to the witching hour. I don’t sleep very well and I slept even worse back then, so it was nice to be able to go to work and do some writing or lesson planning or get some songwriting done—I always had guitars in my classroom, but only to write during these late night sessions. None of the teachers lived in fear of a school shooting—though it was not too far off from Columbine, or a number of other school shootings. I never once questioned my safety; even the idea of Chuck gave me a little bit of comfort in a Barney Fife kind of way. But then, one day, Tyler walked into the room.
Tyler was the punk rock-ish kid with the ripped shirt, the painted fingernails, the spiky Johnny Rotten haircut, and a Sid Vicious attitude. His girlfriend, Lisa, had just been arrested—I suppose this is a good time to reference that these were freshmen in high school. She had broken into a house across the street from school and had her way with a 7th grade boy, leaving him tied to a radiator, naked, and waiting for the homeowner to walk through the door. So, Tyler needed to move on and he had no confidence, no friends, and nothing but music for a quick escape. Had you never interacted with him, I don’t think you’d even know he existed. He was the kid you heard about in the news. He was this Kip Kinkel wannabe, the one who all the counselors, administrators, and teachers kept an eye on, yet he never did anything to really rock the boat.
It was 6:00 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. Realistically, I was probably the last person in the building. I tried really hard to never bring home any work and, frankly, I wasn’t the most prepared person on a daily basis. This is four months into my first year of teaching. I’d already had one student pee behind my desk, had a suicide note emailed to me full of Mötley Crüe lyrics, and I’d seen a father punch his son in the face during a parent-teacher conference. I wasn’t ready for any of those, so when the door opened, I wasn’t ready for that either.
It was so cliché. It was the movie scene that you laugh at because it could never happen. He came in wearing a large, black trench coat, a mean mug across his face, one fist balled, the other with a finger pointed in my direction.
I do not know what he said. I remember him shouting at me. I remember realizing I was in a chair against a wall with very little room to exit. I didn’t think anyone else was in the building and I don’t know if I could have yelled for help. I’m pretty calm in most catastrophic situations, but with this I felt like it was my end.
He just kept screaming.
How did he get in here?
How did he know I was in the building?
And then he left. He walked out the door, down the hall, and presumably out of the school.
I don’t know if he was armed. I don’t know what triggered him. I do know that I was scared; and like so many things that first year, I was unprepared for the emotions. And even though I think I remained mostly, outwardly, hopefully stoic and calm, or something, it was still a moment which should never exist for any teacher.
Look, the reality is, he didn’t shoot me. He screamed a bunch of screamy words and waved his arms wildly at me, but he didn’t pull out a gun and he didn’t shoot me. He wanted to vent or was mad at me or whatever, or pissed that his girlfriend was handcuffed in the classroom, but either way, when he left, I was alive. But that isn’t always the case. And it’s a scary truth in this world in which we live.