How did you have the presence of mind to do that? the television newscaster asked, incredulous. How in the world did you remain calm enough?
The experienced journalist’s questions seemed sincere as he interviewed a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary hours after the horrific shootings. I don’t believe his reaction was merely an attempt to engage the pathos of his viewers after the young teacher described how she corralled her children together in her classroom, sat them on the floor and read them a story after hearing gunshots and screams at her school. He was truly stunned.
Notice I do not call them her students; I call them her children.
For that is how we think of them. Our children. My kids.
The teacher followed a protocol very similar to what teachers are trained to do all across the country. In the elementary school where I taught we regularly practiced a drill to prepare for such a scenario, hoping we never do it for real. Each staff member was aware that a certain announcement over the intercom was code for we’re in lockdown mode. Specific steps then followed for classroom teachers: Lock the door. Close the blinds. Cluster the children in a corner of the room that is out of the line of sight from the door and as far away from the wall of windows as possible. Remain with your children, keeping them calm, until further notice.
The plan of action becomes automatic. But what this newscaster didn’t know, and what anyone who’s never been part of an elementary school culture could know, is that the children under our watch become our children. We love them like our own. We’d do anything in our power to protect them, or die trying. We spend seven hours a day with them for months. We know their fears, their joys, their fragilities. We know what makes them laugh, the foods they love, or at least the foods they hate. We know about the new baby brother who cries all night. We recognize the mischievous glint in their eyes, as well as the look that means they’ve been hurt. We bandage the boo-boos, both real and imagined. We live for the look they shine our way each morning when they cross the threshold into our room that announces, I have arrived, and I know you’re glad.
We love those babies as if they were our own, and they love us. We become a second family for each other. I know from firsthand experience that the individuals who are attracted to the teaching profession love children. They are helpers. They want to make a difference in the world. And for many children, school becomes the most stable element in their life, a place where they are emotionally and physically safe.
Teachers know that our children look to us for guidance and help. They depend on us to make things right while they are away from mom and dad. Sandy Hook is a tragedy that hits close to home, not only for the parents who step out in faith and send their kids off into the world of school each day, but for the many teachers who want nothing more than to make that world a wonderful place.
Teachers of all age groups were affected. A friend who teaches high school had this to say following the tragedy: I was reminded once again that these big kids who spend the year with me are someone’s babies, too. I think I taught with a little more gratitude for them today. Teaching is such an awesome responsibility as we try to meet standards, present challenging and interesting instruction… but it is also a sacred opportunity to show them that patience and grace and compassion are standards to strive for as well. I am so thankful for the privilege to teach them and help them learn to navigate life’s curvy roads.
There will be many curvy roads ahead for all of us as we struggle to come to grips with this latest heartbreak for our nation. How many children today are questioning school as their safe haven? All we can do is reassure them. Tell them we love them and that we’ll do everything within our means to keep them safe. And continue to seek answers to tough questions, solutions to impossible problems. And keep working to make a difference.