I guess it’s a part of life these days, but there is something chilling in reading over my school’s newly adopted lockdown procedure: a reminder that much of what I have believed about the sanctity of the school and the schoolroom is headed the way of the slate tablet and the slide rule.
School was always the safest place I knew. Partly, I suppose, this was because school was also literally my home. Upstairs for many years was a dormitory, and I have eaten enough dinners in school dining halls to make me an expert on chicken à la king and give me a permanent aversion to tater tots; I find nothing ironically appealing about them.
But from elementary school forward, school was where I wanted to be, the place that provided my friends and fed my interests. Along the way there were a enough locker room bullies, capricious or mean teachers, boring professors, and boorish schoolmates to teach me a few things about adversity, but on the whole, it was all a pretty good experience. I was reasonably successful at most of it (mandatory sports at my independent high school excepted), and I’m no doubt a prime example of someone good at school who decides to become a teacher on the strength of that experience.
I’ve had moments of vexation and even a bit of personal agony in nearly forty years as a teacher, but I’ve never felt unsafe. I’ve happily trusted in my adulthood and my experience to manage difficult situations and defuse a couple of near-fights among students. No guns, no knives, no threats--and certainly no maniacs or flying bullets. When I started at my current school in 1980 I got out of the habit of locking my car, and over the years this became something of a thing with me. The day I felt I had to lock up in our more-or-less suburban parking lot would be the day I started looking for a new job.
That day still hasn’t come. I lucked out the day someone came through the lot twenty years ago and yanked out a bunch of car stereos, and I suppose in general my vehicles haven’t made very tempting targets.
But now, like schools across the country, we get to learn what it’s like to go into “lockdown.” Where once our school doors were open and our building-and-grounds workers worried about leaky windows and keeping the baseball field in shape, now we keep most of our doors locked and depend on the crew to seal the rest should a threat manifest itself. We will teach our students where to go and how to act in perilous moments; it feels as though we are rehearsing the act of collectively cowering, however brave a face we may put on.
But cower we must. Maniacs and their guns are a part of our cultural landscape, and schools are no longer sanctuaries. As educators we all talk about wanting to give our students authentic, “real world” experiences, but surely we didn’t ever mean this.
There’s no lockdown procedure, however, for so many of the other things that can make school feel unsafe to a child. There is no lockdown from taunting and bullying, no lockdown from sexual exploitation, no lockdown from being misunderstood or having your learning needs ignored. For lots of kids there’s no lockdown, either, from homes or neighborhoods where dangers, psychic and physical, pervade. And experience tells us that all these situations know no boundaries, that no private, charter, or public school can offer every child a perfect cocoon of safety.
Lockdowns are the uninvited guest, the evil witch, at the feast of “21st-century learning.” Some of you, Gentle Readers, have known this for years, but for others of us it’s a new thing: post-Newtown, post-Virginia Tech, post-Columbine. Once upon a time priests and friars held out their arms to stop marauders at the church or monastery door in the name of god, praying that their consecrated spaces would be respected. Here we are, training to do the same, with no doubt many of the same prayers.
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