Every morning when I get to my school, the first thing I do is to unlock two doors. The first opens into my classroom from inside the building we call the schoolhouse. The second door leads out of my classroom from a wall of windows onto a grassy quad. Most days while I teach, the quad is filled with kids playing Frisbee and waving lacrosse sticks while teachers’ dogs run after them.
I used to unlock only the inside door. Kids could leave my classroom through the outside door, but somebody had to let them in if they wanted to come in from outside. I didn’t have any real reason for this routine; it was just a habit I’d fallen into. I started unlocking the outside door every morning about a year ago after we had “active shooter training.”
I don’t remember everything that I’m supposed to do if one of those lacrosse sticks were to turn into a gun one day. I do remember that I am supposed to keep my door locked if one my students has gotten trapped outside and wants to come in. I’m supposed to assume at that moment that the outside child is a threat and cast my flimsy protective spell over the children already in my care. I do not remember how I am supposed to live with a decision like that for the rest of my life.
The other thing I remember from active shooter training is that it won’t happen to me. That’s the first and last thing they tell you. Statistically, it will never happen to you.
I didn’t get the “It won’t happen to me” gene. I got the ability to imagine the worst thing that could happen in any situation and the desire to write, which means I live by indulging my imagination. Sitting in a baseball stadium? I’m hoping the upper deck won’t fall on me. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge? I’m hoping the earthquake holds off till I get to the other side. Riding the tram up the Sandias? I’m hoping no small planes buzz through the cables today. Wading in placid waters off Cocoa Beach? I’m scanning the horizon for a tsunami and keeping an eye on the spot, twenty yards out, where frenzied fish are jumping in the air.
I didn’t get like this all by myself. When I lived on Lake Michigan for a few years after college, my mother sent me a Reader’s Digest article about a rare amoeba that lives in the Great Lakes and might already have swum into my ear and lodged in my brain. When I learned to drive, she advised me to look under the car before I got in, just in case someone was lying under it waiting to grab my ankles. I excel at spotting danger where it isn’t lurking.
Not long ago, I walked into my classroom to find Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” written on my whiteboard. Yeats says: “Things fall apart; The centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
I had a few moments of not knowing what to do. Should I be worried? Is this a warning? Is this one of those signs that everyone can tell is a sign once something bad has happened?
Yeats says: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
To teach in a high school is to walk a fine line between over and under-reacting.
Joy and pain hold hands in school; they walk around as raw and intense as the week’s newest couple. Just last week in a fifteen-minute span I learned that kids were picking on a child I care about and then watched about ten big basketball boys surround my colleague in a goofy affectionate birthday hug. They carried flowers and had even dressed alike for the occasion.
On any given day in a school, life is beautiful. On any given day in a school, life is hard.
Of course, there’s nothing strange about finding odd things written on my whiteboard. Usually I’ll find a hastily drawn portrait, or a TARDIS, or maybe a few random words, like “I wish I knew the answer!” Last week, next to two cartoon figures, someone had drawn what I thought was an ice cream sundae. Friday afternoon, talking to a student after school, she pointed out my error. “Why would there be flies buzzing around an ice cream sundae?” She asked.
Remember how it felt when you first learned how to pump your legs on a swing? That’s the feeling I’m craving when I get home from school and hear there was another school shooting, this time in Roswell. I am writing angry letters to the editor in my head and I know that the most important thing I can do is not hear the rest of the story. I put my sneakers on and head out for a run.
The trail is loud. Usually when I’m here this open space is largely deserted. Today, three middle school boys are playing with a toddler’s plastic ride-in car. The car is complaining loudly about carrying such big kids, whose heads and arms are sticking out the sides, and the boys are screaming and laughing. They’ve got the crows worked up, so all around me the air is exploding in caws and guffaws.
It’s not fair how the world tricks you into joy while you know how badly other people are suffering. A mile in, and I’m already feeling good. I’m running a diagonal into the sun, scooping the eastern edge of the flood plain, inhaling sky. Down below me on the bike trail, kids are swooshing down the hill on skateboards and scooters. A small moon rides just over my left shoulder, and all of Albuquerque stretches below me. Straight ahead, the sun at eye level, I am blind.
I’m trying a new breathing pattern. An article in Runner’s World says that if I inhale for three paces and exhale for two, I’ll minimize the impact of landing and run injury free for years. It’s too soon to tell if I’m running more safely, but focusing on my breathing feels good.
Isn’t it funny how the rhythm of the lungs is expand/contract, expand/contract? We breathe air in, we blow it out, over and over again, so automatically we hardly think about this quotidian proof that we’re still alive. According to Walker Meade in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, we take almost eight and a half million breaths in a year. I remember watching my father-in-law breathe after he had his stroke, how the air moved in and out for hours, how the spaces between each breath grew longer through the night.
I’ve rounded the curve, so I can see again. Isn’t it funny how the rhythm of the heart is also expand/contract, expand/contract, expand/contract? Blood rushes in to heal or hurt or fill us, and then we push it away and rest a while. I’m thinking about all of this as my footsteps rise and fall in the soft dirt. I don’t like to run on arroyos after dark, and the sun is falling into the west mesa. I’m breathing hard. I’m chasing the light home.
The morning that Yeats appeared on my board, I shook off the questions in my head. I decided that I would be adding to the things that are wrong in the world if I found a poem and labeled it threat instead of gift. I did what I think most English teachers would do. I worked it into my lesson plan.
I didn’t want to write about Roswell. I didn’t want to write about that other school shooting that happened right after Roswell, or about that shooting in a mall near DC. I already wrote about school shootings once before, and there is something obscene in writing about them again.
Right now it’s six a.m., and I’ve been unable to finish this essay for too many days. I’m going to head into school and unlock two doors. It’s not defiance, exactly. I’m making deposits in a bank; I’m accumulating proof that the world makes sense against that day, which I’m doing my best to believe will never come, when nothing makes sense. I’ll spend the day loving and teaching every sweet face that walks through those unlocked doors.
With any luck, we’ll all put another good day in the bank.
 Reader alert: One of the many things I’ve learned as a high school teacher is that if I have no idea what students are talking about, they are probably talking about Dr. Who. That logic will work for you, too, if you are wondering what a TARDIS is.