Before I practice a lockdown drill in my kindergarten classroom, I tell my children a story. I tell them about a skunk that likes to roam the halls of our school, and raise its fluffy black and white tail and spray its smelly spray in its wake.
I ask: What if that skunk was in our hallway? We should hide from that stinky skunk, I tell them. Let’s practice! Together we huddle in a corner away from windows. I barricade the door with a desk. I explain how very quiet we need to be, and I reward my class of crouched, hidden children with a treat. Lockdown lollipops, I call them. I keep a bag stashed in the cupboard near the corner where we plan to hide. I try to keep the whole practice light and kindergarten appropriate, but the situation is edged with fear. Awareness varies at this age.
My students whisper: Are we really hiding from a skunk? Nervously they giggle and lick their lockdown lollipops, and I hold hands with several children as I crouch on the floor with them. During the drill, the police will knock on my door — it’s a test and I am instructed not to answer. The children begin to question my skunk story, but I hold a finger to my lips and shake my head. Inevitably someone will cry and I will whisper a promise of extra recess, and assure him or her everything is OK.
Is this pretend, they whisper, or is this real?
As a kindergarten teacher, it is my job to guide small children. It is my job to help them navigate through this year of firsts: first day of school, first lost tooth, first bus ride. I hold their tiny hands through these milestones. I dispense Band-aids and hugs, Kleenex and hand sanitizer. In our classroom, my kindergartners learn the life lesson of sharing space and coexisting with others. They sit on a brightly colored alphabet rug, each child assigned to their own letter. This is their own small square of space, on a rug alongside 20 classmates. We learn to share. We share crayons and pencils. We share germs and long stories about our pets. We share birthdays and cupcakes and goldfish crackers.
In kindergarten we thrive on structure and routine. We practice sitting on the carpet and walking in a straight line. We practice raising our hands before we speak. We practice writing our letters, and pushing in our chairs. We also practice lockdown drills.
During these drills I must walk myself through the actual possibility. This is a different kind of danger. This isn’t looking both ways in the crosswalk, watching for oncoming cars. In a classroom full of routine and predictability, I am attempting to prepare children for the unknown, irrational, unpredictable. I am the teacher with 20 kindergarteners. I am the grownup who will protect them. How? I can’t imagine having a gun in my classroom. My classroom is filled with curious children, small hands and undeveloped frontal lobes. I don’t even have sharp scissors, much less a gun. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.
During these drills, I am instructed to pull window shades. Have my class crouch out of the line of sight. Huddle in complete silence. Worse yet, I am instructed to lock my door and not open it under any circumstances. Should a child be in the bathroom during this lockdown, I need to believe that he will be pulled safely into another classroom. But should this child come banging on my door pleading to come in, I cannot let him in. This could be a ploy, and by letting in this one child, I could be putting all the others at risk.
I sat on the couch in my living room and talked about lockdowns with my high school-aged daughter. I would always let a child in, I told her. I would go out if I had to. She cried when I said that, and I realized how real this was to her. This hypothetical shooter I plan for could be the kid sitting next to her in English class. I could be the teacher who was in the hallway at the wrong time.
As a teacher, I know there are so many children, so many emotions, so many parents, so many families. The cauldron of depression, teen angst and anger can boil over even in the most well adjusted child. No one can plan for the unthinkable. But still, we plan. We review our lockdown procedures, and talk about solutions, prevention and survival.
I do what I can. I teach my children to hide out of sight. I reward their silence with lollipops. I arm them with love and compassion for each other, and I encourage them to play with the lonely child at recess. I teach them to include everyone, and solve problems with words. I teach them to lift each other up, and not tear each other down. I hope that at this young age I can teach them that love is the greatest weapon against hate, and yet, I will also teach them to hide and be silent in the face of senseless, unbridled rage.
Megan Hart is a kindergarten teacher at Sage International School in Boise.