Editor's Note: The school shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland has sparked intense debate about arming teachers as a way to prevent future massacres. While this guest column is a fictional account, it is intended to share powerful emotions and imagery in the wake of that tragedy.
For many people the smell of tempera paint in an elementary school building will trigger fond childhood memories of making art. My Kindergarten students love paint days. Their faces become animated as they prance into the art room and see trays of colors and paintbrushes set out like place settings on a dining room table. Their voices squeal with excitement as they navigate putting on oversized t-shirts used as paint smocks. They know my classroom procedures and routines of making art because they get plenty of practice.
I interact with students at each table as the young artists explore the magic of mixing colors. Some students are silent and pensive in their discovery while others chatter freely, about the beautiful colors emerging on paint pallets set before them. The smell of tempera paint permeates the room full of contented students.
The school’s intercom unexpectedly bellows, “Teachers, this is a Code Red announcement. Please follow procedures. This is a Code Red announcement. Please follow procedures.” I grab my room keys hanging from my office door and quickly head toward my classroom entrance doors to lock them from the outside. I glance down the hallway and see several other teachers locking their doors. We do not exchange our usual smiles and light-hearted banter, but our silent acknowledgements are reassuring in that this is just a drill.
I unclip window covers from the wall bin and hang the makeshift shades over the door windows to prevent a potential campus intruder from peering into my classroom. This is just a drill, but my heart is beating faster. Children shriek when I turn off the overhead lights. I hurry to the opposite side of the room to close the vertical blinds on the three large windows that take up most of the wall space. I shudder at the thought of seeing an intruder, with intention to harm, standing eye-level, as I clumsily close the shades.
Several students are running around the room in play and the noise has reached an unacceptable level. I notice numerous paint spills on tables as students have become unsettled by my sudden movements around the room. I use my controlled teacher voice to announce for everyone to put down their paint brushes and follow me to the “lavatory,” the name we call our class bathroom.
More squeals of excitement rise as I herd 20 Kindergarten students into the small room typically authorized as a one-person-at-a-time place. I gently push the students away from me who reach out for reassuring hugs. Ever since I was chosen, trained, and registered to carry a concealed weapon on campus, hugging students ceased. I no longer allow children to cling to my waist and legs because it is a plausible accident waiting to happen. I feel the holster secured tightly around my waist and the formidable weapon in its place, a constant reminder that I live in a very different world than when I began teaching 28 years ago. This is a drill and I won’t need to unstrap the lethal weapon from my holster.
While inside our designated hiding spot, I cajole the lively students into playing the quiet game but a few serious moments of total quiet and stillness is all they offer. I hear a faint popping sound but cannot identify the source or where it is coming from. I put my fingers over my lips, making eye contact with each wide-eyed student, hushing them to silence. The popping sounds increase. Students realize the seriousness of the situation and begin screaming and clamoring in confusion. My heart races with the thought of an active shooter, in my art room, a place that embodies a safe and thoughtful learning environment. My young students do not know the procedures and routines for this drill very well. We have not had a lot of practice hiding from dangerous intruders.
My heart pounds faster, my hands shake uncontrollably. Children scream and cry out. My natural inclination is to huddle the children with hugs and solace, but I have a gun. I have been trained to shoot. I slide my hand toward the gun still strapped in its holster. Thunderous sounds from the other side of the door intensify. I can do this. This is what I have been trained to do. I see the doorknob twist. I unstrap the gun and aim it toward the menacing sounds. The door flings open. Screams are amplified. The smell of tempera paint permeates the air. I pull the trigger.
Lydia Countryman is the art teacher at the Franklin County Schools.