A teacher met us in the hallway, the day that Mike was murdered all those years ago.
Too young to understand the danger that was playing out on a stained patch of sidewalk in front of our high school, a friend and I slipped away to gather our things so that we could meet Mike at the hospital. The hall filled with lockers was silent. Teachers were collecting students and depositing them back into the safety of the gymnasium, then leaving again to gather more. There was no official plan in place for shielding students from the horror. They were trying their best, despite the fact that they didn’t have a playbook.
The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week illuminated how the private, whispered terror of surviving children can now be quickly broadcast in real-time over SnapChat and the nightly news. We send our children into school armed with their cell phones, all the while knowing that the only thing protecting them from an active shooter will be their teachers and coaches. As parents, we understand that school visitor policies and chain-link fences and lockdown drills might be helpful to some degree, but that, ultimately, those things can’t protect our kids from a determined person with an assault rifle. Instead, we expect our teachers to place their bodies in front of our babies, and take a bullet for them. That seems more likely, at this stage, than our lawmakers passing common sense gun control.
Ms. Mallory found us in the hallway that day, as we fumbled for our backpacks and tried to figure out where to go next. That morning she had been our cheer coach and the head of the Student Body committee. At 3pm in the afternoon, she was the first person to tell us that Mike had died. I was 14 when she put her hand on my shoulder, and explained to me as quickly as she could that it wasn’t safe for us to be outside. We needed to go back into the gymnasium, where it was safe. We couldn’t leave. Mike was in the ambulance, but we couldn’t go to the hospital to see him. Had she seen him? Had she heard? We searched her face for information, and she clenched her jaw. He wasn’t going to make it.
A few short years after Mike was killed in front of dozens of his friends on the edge of our high school campus, the tragedy at Columbine put a spotlight on the role that teachers play in shielding our children from danger. Twenty-five years after his murder, my own children’s teachers have all memorized what to do should violence visit their classrooms. They’ve attended workshops on identifying which of their 4th graders might bring a gun to school. They have resource lists of grief counselors and volunteers who will bring comfort animals to help ease crying children back into classrooms after the chaos has moved on to yet another school. Our elementary schoolteachers have created elaborate stories to tell our kindergartners about why we practice locking the door and hiding. Our high school teachers regularly answer questions from their teenagers about how they will stand between them and a shooter, and how to silence cell phones when someone is trying to shoot through a door.
Our schools have become killing fields, and as we reel from watching another human being arm himself and end the lives of children, we must look closely at what we are asking of our teachers.
Anger and an unshakable fear seeped into our confusion as we gathered up our backpacks and followed Ms. Mallory quietly back down the hallway. Before there was a cell phone in every hand and cable news on an endless loop, it was a teacher who provided us with a context for what was happening, using the only information available. We couldn’t call our parents. There was only a whisper network, until news reporters and swarms of anxious parents wove their way past the yellow crime scene tape to find us. I can still see Ms. Mallory’s short, dark hair framing a face that was often steely and tough. I am sure that she hadn’t trained for this day. Her teaching credential prepared her for sharing government and history with young people. For solving math problems and punctuating sentences correctly. It even prepared her for talking us through our parent’s divorces, our dating drama, and the friendship-breakups of the week. Teachers do not go to work expecting to hear the blare of an ambulance coming to take dead children away.
And yet, we ask them to. We ask them to stand between our babies and our nightmares. To be first-responders, bodyguards, detectives, therapists. We ask them to fix what our legislators and law enforcement and President can’t fix. What the people in power refuse to fix, over and over again, even when the body count grows. Our teachers do it anyway. Their efforts are funded by local families, by non-profit organizations….not the NRA. We ask our teachers to fight on the front line, funded only by boxtops and AmazonSmile and PTA money, and then we ask them to do it again, stuffing their own terror into broom closets with our children. They run lockdown drills, quietly tucking kindergartners into cubbies and bathrooms, shushing them with silent games and kind smiles. They cover high school classroom windows with paper, tell teenagers to silence their phones, stand between closed doors and hysterical young people, and wonder when the shooting will stop.
They are doing the best that they can. But it’s not their job to make the shooting stop.
If you want to ensure your child is safe at school, call your elected officials. Join Moms Demand Action and Everytown. Vote for representatives who are not funded by the NRA. Talk to your community about safe storage of guns, and where guns are sold in your city. Speak to your children about gun safety, about reporting things that don’t seem right. Talk to your scouting groups, your soccer teams, your Mom’s Night Out friends. Learn how to support mental health programs, and educate yourself about how gun laws and mental health care don’t intersect like they should. Our teachers teach our children to lean on each other, to work as a team. They need us on their team. Use your voice. Use your vote. Use your money. We are asking our teachers to use their bodies, and still our country refuses to use their laws.
And when your beautiful, wise, hilarious child walks out of her classroom as the bell rings today, hug her teacher. When your teenager looks up from her cell phone long enough to tell you that her teacher paused their lessons today to promise she would always keep them safe, send that teacher an email and thank her. Our teachers are some of the only leaders in this country who are willing to do everything in their power so that our kids come home to us every day.
Teachers are brought in to help our children grow. Lawmakers are elected to help our children survive.
Kim Simon is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two young sons. Her writing on the intersection of parenthood and politics is influenced by her background in social work and crisis counseling. She can be found telling the truth about motherhood at @mamabythebay and http://mamabythebay.com.