Reflecting On the School Crisis, Part One

I'm lucky enough to say I love my day job.

When I'm not writing, I'm a substitute teacher. I work mostly in elementary schools, with some days in middle and high schools. It's hard work. I find myself facing everything from snot zombies to impromptu Lovecraftian cults to that one kid who brings raw eggs to class. That's the job, though. Sometimes the teacher doesn't leave lesson plans, sometimes one of your first graders decides to get a little stabby with a pencil, sometimes three different kindergartners have emotional crises at once and you're trying to get them to the bus on time.

Sometimes the principal comes on the PA and tells the teachers to lock their doors.

This is not the protocol for a school shooter. We do those drills, too, where the kids have to get under their desks and be completely silent while I turn off the lights. But the "lock your doors" message is sort of... Lockdown Light, where we know that someone, somewhere in the building is making a poor choice, and the kids aren't dumb.

They've heard the stories. They have to, for safety reasons. We have lockdown drills for a reason, and they've only gotten more intense over the years. I've heard the stories, too. After all, a substitute died in Sandy Hook. There's a really depressing element of danger to my job. It's... weird. It's not something I expected when I started doing this.

The first time that announcement came on at a school, I was in a third grade classroom. Small town, lots of parents with conservative kids. I was in the middle of a math lesson, so the kids were already antsy. 

Teachers, please take a moment to close and lock your doors, and keep your children in their classrooms until further notice. Thank you.

The entire class froze up. One of the kids immediately asked: "Miss Alex, what does that mean?"

Another kid answered before I could: "It means we have to stay in here to stay safe!"

"Is there someone in the school, Miss Alex?"

We weren't in any danger. We were completely safe: the incident, I'd later learn, posed no danger to any student in the school at all.  But I suddenly found myself standing in front of twenty-five scared eight-year-olds. As the adult, I was completely responsible for their safety. I was responsible for their feeling of security. I was responsible for teaching them to remain calm in the face of something frightening. And I couldn't just tell them it was completely fine, because ethics aside they did need to take drills seriously just in case.

Just in case.

I get paid decently well. $15-$16/hour based on the number of hours I work a day. But I don't get paid over breaks or for school holidays, and I don't get healthcare through work. I have no sick time, so when I catch the inevitable bug I lose money. If I don't take a single sick day and I work every single school day of the year, I am paid $16,000 a year at my day job. Not counting taxes. I do not work every single school day of the year.

The money isn't particularly important. I love it, and it helps pay the bills in addition to writing and editing services. But there's a certain amount of value placed in one's salary, and that's how much I'm valued. $5k above the poverty line, according to a few minutes' research.

Let's return to that classroom.

That weight dropped on my shoulders pretty hard. In the moment, I chose to pause the math lesson and verbally (not physically) rehearse the lockdown procedures before we continued. Once that was done, we continued the lesson like normal until the announcement was lifted about half an hour later. Once I got off work, though, I called my parents and had to take a moment to talk about it.

I've been with kids when they're making the poor choices that lead to announcements like that one. It happens, and it's usually okay once they calm down. I also went to a shooting range and used my aunt's semi-auto for my eighteenth birthday. I'm familiar with guns. I'm familiar with kids.

But that situation rattled me.

There have been other situations that drove home how pervasive this anxiety is in kids. I described something as "crazy" (meaning "silly") once in a pre-school class, and all the children at the lunch table got very quiet and told me that crazy meant people who tried to hurt you at school. (Which is not helpful for the mental health stigma.) I have had to answer questions about whether or not substitute teachers should be armed like "regular teachers". 

I'm not making statements here. I'm quite forward with my stance on how this should be treated, and that's another topic. It's not the point of this post.

This is a terrible situation, and it's pervasive in ways most people just aren't aware of. Preschoolers shouldn't be telling me that people are coming to shoot them at school. Third graders shouldn't fear for their lives whenever the principal needs to keep the hallways clear. The point of this post is to give people an insight into how this is affecting people day to day, not just those who are directly affected by the crisis incidents themselves.

I'm adding my voice to the millions out there already. This needs to stop.