After graduating college, I taught preschool in Texas for about six months. It was a grueling, entry-level job that made my back ache while also making me feel proud in an oddly maternal way that made me very uncomfortable. For the majority of my time in that job, I wiped runny noses, changed diapers, sang lullabies, held sticky hands, and desperately wished I were somewhere else.
I was young, overwhelmed, freshly graduated without a clear career path, and thoroughly uninterested in pretty much everything (including kids).
Then one day, an individual came onto the school grounds with a weapon.
Here’s a picture.
The principal comes sprinting across the lawn at recess and hurriedly tells me not to panic but to gather all the children inside immediately. The entire school goes on lockdown. We turn out the lights. We get out the walkie talkies. My co-teacher and I then huddle with the 33 children (ages 2.5-7) behind cabinet doors, desks, and cots, trying to keep them quiet and reassure them (without telling them anything) that everything is alright.
We stay like that without any updates for an hour. The children miss half of lunch. I hold one of my crying students halfway on his cot, halfway in my lap, trying to help him sleep.
The kids are cranky and need naps. I worry about how tired they are and how loud they are being. How obvious and exposed we all are. I exchange panicked looks with my co-teacher. I look at the small bodies huddled in the corners. I consider the choice I would make.
I become aware that I am a teacher in a classroom of crying targets. I am 23 – inexperienced and scared shitless. But when the children ask me what’s wrong, I force down my fear and whisper songs and stories instead. I tell them to sleep. I tell them they are strong and safe. I lie and tell them there is nothing to be afraid of. Because that’s what teachers do.
Eventually the lockdown ends. We try to reassure the kids and adjust the schedule of the day as best we can. The kids know something happened, but they can’t tell what.
At the end of the day, another teacher hands me her phone to show me an advertisement for a new company specializing in bulletproof blankets for schools and childcare centers.
“A new industry,” she says.
This is what teaching looks like.
Turns out the whole lockdown situation was a false alarm – an angry parent had stormed out of the office and someone had reported that he had a pile of guns stowed in the hatchback of his car.
The experience terrified me nonetheless and a few weeks afterward, I gave my resignation. As unpleasant and grueling as the job had been, it still broke my heart to leave the children and on my last day, I sat in my car and cried knowing that I would probably never see any of them again.
But I knew that I had to leave. Because at 23 years old, with a whole myriad of hopes and dreams and idealistic fresh-out-of-college intentions running through my heart and head, leaving the children also meant leaving that choice behind; that awful, gut-wrenching choice that so many teachers, mentors, and school staff must consider on a daily basis. That choice that no one has a good answer to.
Would I die for them?
Could I do that?
We ask too much of our teachers as it is. Most of the teachers I know buy the majority of their own supplies. They work overtime almost every week. They have back problems but wear braces and orthopedic shoes for standing all day. They always look proud, irritated, and utterly exhausted (or a combination of all three).
We ask them to teach our children kindness and empathy, reading and math. We ask them to undo crappy parenting. We ask them to give their passion and words and inspiration and mentorship daily for incredibly low wages and very little appreciation.
Now we ask them to teach safety in an increasingly unstable and unsafe world. Now we ask them to put their lives on the line every day when they go to work.
I’ve heard the arguments. I’ve heard the excuses. Mental illness. Isolated incidents. People kill people. Respect our rights. But I’ve been a teacher in a lockdown situation. And when students are being slaughtered in their classrooms, thoughts and prayers don’t mean jack shit.
When teachers are dying for their students on a daily basis, it does not take much to recognize that something is very, very wrong. In a world where bulletproof blankets are now on the list of school supplies, I don’t give a damn about your gun.