The sirens wail. The wind whips into the windows and they shudder, shaking with the force of falling trees. Desks scrape against the floor as students shove themselves from their seats in unison; feet pound like pelting raindrops on the floor.
On the stairs.
As we make our way to the basement. They scurry to find a place beside the walls; they crouch and duck and cover. The lights flicker off. We’re buried in darkness.
Today it’s only a drill, but what when it isn’t? It was only three years ago when I was in their position: I was riding the bus home from class when it pulled over at the student center and announced everyone had to get off and go inside.
Once there, everyone was led into a winding cement corridor I had never known about before, its curvature so great I couldn’t see from end to end while crouched in the middle of it. I was lucky that a few friends of mine happened to be there at the same time. We watched our phones as readily as we breathed, maybe more so because so many of us held our breaths as we waited. We had information–or the lack of it–to comfort us.
My students today? They aren’t allowed to have their cell phones. They’re completely cut off from the world. Today’s drill was barely 15 minutes. Three years ago it was nearly an hour until we were let out–an hour without knowing if friends or family were okay.
Here’s another difference: Back then, I was the one crouching for safety, but today the teachers kept standing. It’s our job to watch over the kids, make sure they’re sitting silently, attend to communication from admin if necessary. But what happens if the building breaks above us? I can’t hold up the ceiling if the sky comes crashing down.
For a moment, in the dark, I thought I was supposed to find the students in my class and stand with them, but as nearly 400 students made their way downstairs, the classes mingled and dispersed. Besides, once they were all sitting down, I couldn’t look more than three kids in either direction before seeing one of my students. How can I stand by my kids when they’re all my kids?
The sirens finally wore down and we waited in silence.
But it wasn’t truly silence. Here and there a student or two tried to talk, and a teacher quickly shushed them. The murmuring. The humming. One student rapped his knuckles on the floor. Another fidgeted with his keys. A third drummed on a plastic chair.
The air grew warm and tepid. Almost suffocating. Yet we remained still and silent.
Finally the lights came on. They announced an all clear. The drill was over.
But what happens when it isn’t?