We Were Just Kids
It comes without a warning.
“Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown!”
The voice over the intercom reverberates throughout the high school, interrupting calculus lessons and forcing tests to be left unfinished. It sets our teenage hearts racing, blood and adrenaline rushing through our ears in tandem. We hold our collective breaths.
“There is an active shooter in B Wing. Evacuate immediately or take cover. I repeat, there is—”
The classroom erupts into a frenzy. Students leap out of their seats and lunge over desks to scamper like frightened mice to the farthest corner of the room. There is no guarantee of safety anymore, but we have been taught that this particular corner is best. The sounds of chairs scraping on tile floors clash with the sounds of anxious whispers and curse words. The teacher is shouting demands over the symphony of chaos we have created.
“Shut the window blinds, barricade the door, turn the lights off!”
I remember seeing a video online about active shooter drills in the U.S., about how one school in particular taught their students to hold textbooks in front of their faces when they hid. The textbooks aren’t bulletproof, but neither are we.
It takes no longer than a minute for the entirety of the class to tuck ourselves away in that safe corner. All twenty odd of us—the teacher included—are on the floor, our knees brought up to our chests or legs twisted into a crouch. We have never been this physically close to each other before, breaths on shoulders and whispers in ears. Friends hold friends, boyfriends hold girlfriends, and if, by some bad luck, you ended up distanced from those loved ones—like me—you clutch the metal leg of a desk and peer with wide eyes at the classroom door for any signs of movement out in the corridor, for any warning of a wicked, violent death approaching. I don’t grab a textbook to hold at the level of my eyes. If I am to die here and now, I want to see it coming.
Then we wait.
Though the fluorescent lights have been switched off and the window blinds drawn shut, the classroom is far from dark. Afternoon sunlight slips through the gaps of the blinds and sets the royal blue and beige walls alight in soft rays. It’s a peaceful kind of light, unsettling only because I’ve never seen the classroom without the glare of the artificial lights above our heads.
But light isn’t necessarily a good thing. The window of the door connecting us to the corridor is without a blind and leaves us vulnerable. Anyone in the corridor could look through and see straight into the room, even with the lights off. That’s why the farthest corner, the one we’re all tucked into now, is safest; the angle of the door’s window keeps most of us out of sight for any intruder looking in. Most of us. There are still legs and arms in view, which is why someone has taken a sheet of paper and taped it across the window. It does little to help, considering the paper is about half the size of it, but I suppose it’s the thought that counts. We’ll take any chance at safety we can get.
The barricade we built in front of the door, as instructed, is strange to say the least. The teacher’s desk—which is heavier than several students combined and wider than the threshold—has been dragged before the door, along with the table normally at the front of the class. Desks and chairs have been piled on top and around. There are two other doors in the room, opening into the classrooms on either side. A student’s desk has been shoved in front of one, and a filing cabinet the other.
I’ve always thought the barricades were more of a warning than an obstacle. It wouldn’t be hard to push through them, but the ruckus it would cause would give us precious seconds to prepare for—
Well. You know.
As mere moments crawl into minutes, a chatter comes to life. Their words are too hushed for me to distinguish, but occasionally I catch a complaint about cramping legs, a whine about having left a phone at a desk across the room or a stifled laugh. How they feel anything but dread is beyond me. A boy nearby draws his hands together to mimic a gun and aims at the door. His face darkens, mockingly, and he murmurs something along the lines of, “Get down on the ground, down on the ground!” His friends giggle. A girl on the other side of me stares only at her phone, surely texting her friends in another classroom about how ridiculous this situation is. Everyone else is…I don’t know. It’s an effort for me to look anywhere but the door.
Some of us take this seriously, others don’t. Some of us know that today could be our last, maybe others know that and just can’t face it. I try not to think about it—that awful, cruel threat that could be prowling towards us as we wait around like sitting ducks—but the quiet of the classroom doesn’t exactly do me any good.
A new figure lingers in the corridor, a monstrous creature silhouetted in the window. It silences every student; even the boy puts down his gun-mocking fists and the girl looks up from her phone. The teacher hisses a shhh. I pretend to whisper my last goodbyes.
And we wait as the figure wrestles with the handle, succeeds, and rams his shoulder against the door, combating the weight of the barricade.
* * *
We don’t dare joke around. Not today.
“What you’re about to hear is the phone call between the librarian of Columbine High School and the local police department on the day of the shooting,” our guest speaker says. He holds the microphone too close to his lips, we can hear every mouth noise and panted breath.
Sure enough, a woman’s panicked voice echoes through the auditorium, blasted through the speakers fixed to either side of the walls. She whispers to another woman—the police dispatcher on the other end of the line—as crude pops sound in the background.
Gunshots, I realize.
But the gunshots aren’t the worst of it. The distant screams are.
I hate myself for it, beg myself not to, but I can’t help but conjure a mental image to match the audio. Students hunkered down in the corners of the library. The librarian shielding as many students as possible under a reception desk. The wailing of sirens in the distance—or maybe not, depending on a lot of things. The doors of the library fling open and in the threshold, the villain. I don’t let myself imagine any further than that.
The audio stops.
“Later today, we will be conducting an active shooter drill,” the speaker says. I swear I see a ghost of a smile on his lips. “Please bear in mind all we have taught you today.”
* * *
It’s pathetic how easily the mock gunman shoves aside the barricade. But I was right: the noise he makes gives me just enough time to remind myself that this is just a drill, to brace for the attack that would follow if this wasn’t a drill.
“Bang, bang, bang!” he shouts, raising the fake gun painted a vibrant red and aiming straight at our heads. Slowly, he lowers it. Shame grows in the silence. “Dead,” he declares us, and based on that tone he uses, he’s probably said the same thing to the past five or six classrooms he’s tested.
Our teacher takes it in stride and stands, her hands going to her skirt to smooth out wrinkles I can’t see. “Yes, thank you.”
The mock gunman and the police officers lingering behind him leave without another word, closing the door with a click that haunts me for some reason. Maybe because a real shooter wouldn’t bother to close the door after going on a murder spree.
“Take down the barricade,” the teacher says, but there’s only hollow disappointment and dry guilt in her words. No malice, no strength. “Set the desks straight again. Open the window blinds. Hit the lights.”
We do. Well, I don’t. It’s all I can manage to shuffle back to my desk and place my hands flat on the faux wooden surface to keep them from trembling. It’s all I can manage to remind myself again and again that this was just a drill, and all I can manage to grasp whatever sense I have left. All I can manage to breathe in, breathe out. All I can manage to tuck my hair behind my ears and rub at my eyes with the palms of my hands.
Sometimes I wonder if these drills do us more bad than good.
* * *
It comes again, ten minutes later when we’re all back in our seats and waiting for it.
“Attention, staff and students,” the intercom says. “This is a drill. I repeat, this is a drill.”
But that brings me no comfort. I may as well not hear it, not understand it. Because one of these days, it may not be a drill. I need to be ready for it.
“Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown!”
We hold our breaths again—wait for it.
“There is an active shooter inC Wing. Evacuate immediately or take cover. I repeat. There is an active shooter in C wing. Evacuate immediately or take cover.”
Like the first drill, chaos ensues, but it’s different this time. C Wing is far enough away that we can take the chance of evacuating instead of barricading the door and waiting for our death to come knocking. We can slip from our classroom and make a break for it. We can get the hell out of this cursed brick prison of a school. We can live.
So this time, we run.