Lockdown by Taylor Erickson

Lockdown by Taylor Erickson

In the Summer Institute and throughout the year, Northern California Writing Project teacher consultants are invited to engage with in-depth writing prompts in generative groups. We believe classrooms hold the world inside of them, and teachers witness the impact of family systems, larger culture, local communities, political debate, and public health, alongside their own lives. Dispatches is a place where we explore these intersections and tangles, joys and impossibilities, with the aim to honor our educators and those they teach.

(TW: This piece refers to an emergency alert, potential active shooter, and the subsequent lockdown)

Thursday November 18, 2021

The 10:34 am bell is about to ring.

All masked, students file into the fluorescent lit classroom and make their way to their desks. I greet their half-covered faces with my usual exuberance, prompting them to open up their Chromebooks. I plan to start class on time, as usual.  Not bad for three months into pandemic teaching.

Since COVID protocol requires classroom doors to be open at all times during class sessions, I explained that I was locking the door  due to the tardy sweep. According to the email sent this morning, tardy students would be temporarily locked out of the class, given a scolding lecture in the auditorium, and then sent back to class. Maybe that would encourage punctuality?

I head for the door to lock it. Right. On. Time.

As I’m about to lock it, a disembodied female voice comes onto the intercom:

“Attention students and teachers: the tardy sweep has been canceled. Once again, the tardy sweep has been canceled.” 

“So much for nothing,” I thought.  

The bell rings. 10:34 am. Back to business.

According to the lesson plan, we were reviewing the plot of the Great Depression novella, Of Mice and Men. It’s the part of the story where Curley’s wife is strangled to death in the barn. She never saw that coming. A very absurd, unexpected way to die.

We just finished the daily warm up. Before I’m about to tell students to open up to the book to start reading, the same female voice comes on to the intercom again.

“This is a lockdown. I repeat, this is a lockdown.” 


An intruder?

A shooter?

What is it?

I’ve only gone through one serious lockdown in my teaching career so far. 

What was the lockdown code? We never rehearsed this as a school, even though California Ed Code requires it. Knowing the code would have helped.

So six minutes ago it was “don’t lock your doors” to cancel the tardy sweep. Now, it’s “lock your doors” because it’s a lockdown? Was this some kind of joke?

In order to protect the 33 other young lives in the room, I had to assume the worst: someone with a weapon on this campus.

The current ALICE training teaches three basic actions: run, hide, defend. Contrary to popular belief, barricading isn’t always the best option in the event you need to quickly escape. At any rate, it’s hard to figure out the best option when you have no information.

So then, what do you do when you have no information? 

“Lock the doors!” I said.

I grab my baseball bat (as if that’ll help in the face of an active shooter?) and my cell phone. I was in military mode.

Students have confused looks on their faces.

“Ms. Erickson, what’s going on?”

“Everyone steer clear of the doors” I commanded. “To the wall!”

If someone had a gun on campus, we’d need to move fast.. Some immediately picked up their belongings and gathered by the wall. Others moved slowly, confused, in denial.

“Quickly!” I said.

They all packed up against the wall like sardines. Social distancing was no longer a thing, and their masks weren’t properly fastened. A lockdown in a pandemic: the worst combination you could ever ask for.

You never want to be near windows or doors if someone shoots through the door. Bullets could penetrate through. 

“Whoa, Ms. Erickson!” a student said. “Chill out!” 

That was Derek. He’s a senior who failed freshmen English and was forced against his will to make up credits in my class. 

Derek walked towards the door. 

“Derek, don’t open the door,” I stated. 

“It’s fine, “he said. He opened it and looked outside. He casually glanced from side to side. 

“There’s nothing out here,” he said. “I don’t get what the big deal is.” 

“Derek! LOCK THE DOOR!” I yelled.  “THIS IS A LOCKDOWN!”

I never yell at students. I’m always very polite, even to students like Derek who have no respect for authority. But in a lockdown, there is no time for niceness. No time for stupid mistakes. We didn’t know what the threat was.

I am responsible for 33 other lives right now. 

Someone might have a gun on this campus. They might head for our room. What if they start shooting at our room? Where are they right now?

When you are in complete ignorance as to which threat is actually out there, you have to take this seriously. Every minute matters. The 1999 Columbine library massacre took only seven minutes. Two active shooters–both teenagers who attended the high school– killed 10 students and injured 24.  With more decisive and timely action, could their lives have been saved that day?

Seven minutes.

I refuse to let myself and my students become victims—if I can help it.

So we waited for further instruction.

Even with the color codes, it’s not clear which kind of threat you’re faced with. Certainly, there are many different reasons for a lockdown. A lockdown can be activated for something as simple as an unconfirmed stranger walking around with a cane, a robbery that took place near the school, a vicious animal on the loose or an unconfirmed weapon.

An unconfirmed weapon.

This would be my second official lockdown in my teaching career so far. When I taught in Redding, we had one serious lockdown. It was activated because a random guy came to the front office to return paperwork before going hunting. Unfortunately, he forgot that he couldn’t have his hunting gun with him on a school campus. The moment he laughed and joked with the office clerk, “Oh shoot! I probably shouldn’t have my gun with me, right?” then the alarms were activated. His careless mistake set that whole district  into a traumatic lockdown. This is only darkly humorous in hindsight, though.

During a lockdown, you’re supposed to check your email for updates. My hands were shaking as I clicked open the email on my laptop. 

At 10:56  am my email read:

This morning there was an incident on campus. Out of an abundance of caution, the school was placed into lockdown at 10:47 am with the assistance of the MH Police Department. Students remain safe in their classrooms.The investigation is ongoing. We will continue to provide updates once the lockdown has been lifted.

Thank you,

Administrative Team

The term “incident” remained vague and unsettling. Students checked social media and heard rumors of a fight with a knife and brass knuckle. The ongoing rumors aggravated my ears.

It was like we were hiding in a war zone waiting for the next command. Would we get out alive?

We were all sitting in a dark room waiting for orders. In moments like this, your mind wanders to the worst places. I tapped my foot on the floor.

Meanwhile, students waited in the dark classroom, huddled against the wall. Some grew tired and bored. Some lay across the desks, pulled out their phones and started taking pictures. The phones and camera flashes were the only source of artificial light in this dark room. A pacifier in these pugatorial moments of uncertainty. 

“Did you hear anything yet?” a student asked nervously. He seemed to be the only one sharing my same concerns.

“No,” I said. “Still on standby,” I said. 

I kept clicking refresh on my email to see if any updates would come in.

Does hearing nothing mean that we’ll be okay?

“Ms. Erickson,” Joanna asks, “How much longer are we going to be here?” 

“I have no idea,” I said.

Joanna and her friend Maria decide to watch a movie on  her phone together. The Titanic. Watching a cruiseliner plunge into the frigid Atlantic during a lockdown?  No thank you.

“We may need to run out of here FYI,” I said.

“But Leonardo DiCaprio is so cute!” one said.

How are my students so chill about this? 

Was it because they’ve gone through so many lockdowns since kindergarten? Was it because they’ve been on COVID quarantine lockdown since 2020? Was it because they’re already saturated in violent video games and TV shows? The more you’re exposed, the more desensitized you become, I guess.

Maybe if I went through more lockdowns, I wouldn’t be shaking right now. My heart wouldn’t be pounding. I wouldn’t be thinking of the Columbine victims. The Parkland victims. The Sandy Hook victims. They never saw that coming, and didn’t think the school would be shot up that day. No one ever wants to entertain these notions.

Yet no matter how often lockdowns or a violent incident occurs, it still needs to be taken seriously. 

I check my email at least 10 times within the next minute, engulfed in my computer screen, hoping for some more information, more certainty to act on.

Still nothing. 

Should I go back to the lesson? I’ve never felt both frightened for my life and bored at the same time. I guess that’s why some teachers decided to keep teaching during the lockdown; at least it gave everyone some kind of productive distraction, rather than to be tortured by uncertainty.

I tapped my right foot on the floor. When can I run?

As we waited and waited, some teachers apparently were letting their students outside to use the bathroom during the lockdown. During an ACTUAL LOCKDOWN, you’re not supposed to open your doors at all, until you hear the “ALL CLEAR.”

Another email pops up in my inbox:

Please keep students inside your classroom regardless of anything.  We are on a lockdown and need everyone secured.  Will notify when it is all clear.  Parents have been notified.

Still no specific information on the exact threat on our campus. I wasn’t going to take chances and assume it was safe to let students outside to use the bathroom. One wrong move and lives are lost.

Yet some still felt secure in this entire process. Some teachers also kept posting work in Google Classroom during the lockdown. Some even gave tests and required students to continue their test. They said regardless of the lockdown, the work would still need to be finished by the end of the day. Students weren’t allowed to call their parents UNTIL they finished their tests.

To some extent, I can understand this. How else do you occupy yourself and 33 other bored people while you’re locked in a classroom? One teacher told me later her rationale: “It gave them something productive to do.” 

Just keep going.

For whatever reason, this isn’t my trauma response. It it still makes me wonder why some teachers continued to teach in the face of a threat:

Was it because these teachers have been through so many lockdowns with no actual threat? 

Was it because they were just downright desensitized to 21st century violence?

Was it their own way of feeling secure as a coping mechanism in the face of danger?

It’s about 11:30am, and by now we would have finished the reading. We’re all still huddled in a dark room, confused.

I can’t do this. I can’t teach. I can’t do anything but check my email and wait to run. We don’t know what is out there. We don’t know what will happen.

Later that afternoon, we would finally find out that the lockdown was more of an investigation of a fight incident that broke out during brunch around 10:15 am. At the time of the lockdown, police were investigating whether a weapon was involved, and needed classrooms to hold in place while they searched for the weapon. A knife and a brass knuckle, they said.

So it wasn’t an active shooter, thankfully. We weren’t necessarily in immediate danger, I guess. There were potentially two weapons on the campus.

Should I have kept teaching like everyone else? 

There was no way of knowing we were safe. 

I never make assumptions that I am promised tomorrow. Maybe that’s just a life philosophy thing, which is why I take lockdowns seriously, no matter how often they occur.  I can’t afford to be desensitized.

The 12:16pm class bell rings. It’s not the all clear bell. It’s the bell that tells us that the period 3 class is over. The bell schedule kept going and made no respect for the lockdown.

“Can we leave?” a student asked.

Friday November 19, 2021

That morning when I woke up, I kept fighting back tears. I didn’t know how I would hold it together for my students for a full day of teaching.  I emailed my principal, expressing that I needed counseling. That required permission to leave one of my class periods.

 I don’t normally do this. 

Rather promptly, I receive a reply from her: 

“Yes. We have counseling services available.”

The e-mail read rather cold and short. I would have to coordinate this myself to make sure that my class was covered. Keeping order as usual was more important than giving people space to reflect and breathe, I guess. I arranged for my co-teacher to cover my last period of the day, where I could then seek counseling.  

That following morning was quieter than usual. Not as many students walked around the school yard.  The day had barely started and we all wanted it to be over. Plus, it was also the day before Thanksgiving break, so lockdown or no lockdown, there already was little motivation to work.

Was not showing up a sign of protest? Fear? Early vacation? All of the above?

Not knowing whether I’d make it home safely the day prior, I was mentally paralyzed in fight or flight. I was in no place to teach. In fact, I refused to teach in a place that didn’t feel safe, in a school that didn’t bother to rehearse any emergency drills at the beginning of the school year. School apparently was supposed to “proceed as normal” though.

8:30am. The first period bell rings. That impersonal bell tells me it’s supposed to be business as usual. As if nothing happened yesterday. As if none of my feelings–or ANYONE’s feelings— mattered.

Students file in my classroom, a little slower, a little more reluctant than usual.

I greet my students with a forced smile. 

I want to burst into tears. I want to be home where I feel safe. 

I stare into an empty sea of confused, frightened and bored faces.

“How many of you don’t want to be here right now?” I asked.

They all raised their hands. 

I raised my hand, too.The only thing I could manage that day was play movies in class. This is not what I normally do, but my mind was paralyzed. Students appreciated this, because they didn’t feel safe either. Their minds needed something relaxing and numbing.

I somehow got through most of the day. The movies were all a blur.

The last period of the day, I checked myself into the counseling at the school campus Wellness Center. A therapist who normally works with my students greeted me with a slightly surprised smile. 

We talk. I cry. It feels weird that we’re also co-workers. I’m not sure what I can share honestly. The best she can do is listen to some of my edited divulgences. She nodded her head and told me I had every right to feel this way. She didn’t seem shaken up by the lockdown. Maybe she was someone who just kept going during the lockdown. I didn’t ask.

I walk back to my classroom, where my sixth period is watching a  movie about racial justice. I dry the tears off my face. I didn’t see other teachers cry that day. Was I the only one who couldn’t hold it together?

As the winter wind wafts in the air, I hear a teacher’s voice bellow: “Okay, everyone open up to page 43, we will be taking our open-note quiz on Hitler’s propaganda methods. You have until the end of the period to finish.”

I shake my head. Some teachers continued to carry on as if there was no fight between 5 boys yesterday morning.

As if they didn’t punch him with a brass knuckle.

As if the victim wasn’t concussed with bruises.

As if the paramedics never came.

As if school safety wasn’t threatened.

Was this not worth discussing this process as a school community? Was it not worth reflecting on the lack of lockdown drills and rehearsals that should have legally been in place the first 2-3 weeks of the school year? There was no conversation on how school protocol could have been improved.

No one said anything.

3:13pm. The last bell is about to ring. The bell that grants me permission to exit campus to the safety of my own home.

Before stepping through the classroom door, I rub my eyes so that students don’t know I was crying.  Maybe if I went through more lockdowns, I wouldn’t be so shaken up.

Taylor Erickson has taught high school English for five years in various locations in California. She currently teaches in the Silicon Valley region, where she enjoys blogging, singing, long distance running and hiking.

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