This summer, I have thought a lot about safety at school. The safety and well-being of every child and of every faculty and staff member in our care is of the utmost importance, and, in the context of school shootings, part of my job is to prepare for the worst.
Inspired by two fictional characters – Jo who, with Professor Bhaer, started a school in Little Men and by Madge in the Chalet School series – I grew up wanting to lead a school. I imagined presiding over assemblies, writing neatly on the blackboard, organizing plays and the rich experiential learning that children remember forever. In my own second-grade classroom at the Agnes Irwin School, we built an igloo from carved blocks. Later, in sixth grade, we studied herring gulls and baboons and Netsilik eskimos and acted out Island of the Blue Dolphins. If sad, we buried our faces in the calm flank of Mrs. Poor’s sheltie, a patient dog whose name is lost to time. My imaginings did not encompass lockdowns. I was too old for Cold War drills and never hid under my desk or took shelter in the bomb shelters, marked with careful signage in banks and movie theatres in Bryn Mawr, PA.
One February, as a young teacher in New England boarding school, I weathered a spate of fire alarms in the middle of the night. I would wake groggily and hurry to bang on the doors of the rooms of girls on my hall. Freezing in the chill dark, huddled under blankets, the girls lined up, with me barking attendance to be certain I had not left anyone to perish. At 24, it felt like a big responsibility to be in charge of twenty girls. We all were relieved when we learned a short in the system had caused the malfunction and that there was neither any real danger nor a prankster in our midst.
In the opening days of the summer theater program my husband and I ran for many years, we faithfully practiced evacuating the big, old summer house, pouring out onto the sidewalk, the occasional unfortunate teenage boy wrapped in a towel, having been called from the shower. Fire was a real threat in that wooden structure, but we were careful.
But in Manhattan on 9/11, I learned what it meant to move beyond being stunned into an automaticity that allowed me to do what needed to be done. On that day, I helped dismiss the Middle School as parents arrived, breathless, frantic, to claim their daughters. I knew my own children were safe, a world away from horror in their own school on the Upper East Side near mine. And once I became a Head, I realized that the buck stopped with me in lots of ways I had never fully considered.
Years ago, practicing a safety scenario, I was with a group in the library when, more swiftly than I thought possible, a member of our tech department acting in the role of a shooter burst through the door and scaled our hastily organized barricade of desks and chairs, firing Nerf pellets and shouting. Around me, some colleagues fought back, hurling stuffed animals (provided by the police to stand in as weapons) and others fled down a corner staircase. But I, the leader of the school, froze. After precious seconds that would not been afforded me if facing a real shooter, I hurled myself on top of our Upper School drama teacher, a young woman I have known since girlhood.
When the practice drill was over, I was still trembling. I had always thought of myself as brave and fearless on behalf of those who looked to me for leadership, but, in that instant, I was afraid. Even though it was just a simulation, adrenaline coursed through my veins. I saw my own children, had a flash of them motherless. Then I remembered the courage of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal at Sandy Hook, who died trying to save her children, and I felt small. I wanted to be that brave, that selfless.
The summer after Newtown, my family and I sat in a plaza in Florence at dusk, watching our then nine-year-old son play soccer in a pick-up game. Another American boy, the ringleader of the game, graciously shouted, “Come on!” Without a beat of hesitation, our son joined the gleeful fray, as happy as we ever saw him on the trip. Children played in several languages, communicating through a shared understanding of soccer. We perched on a fountain next to the ringleader’s parents who mentioned they were from Connecticut. My daughter, in college at Wesleyan University, also in Connecticut, asked where they lived, and they answered, “Newtown.” I stuttered something about their city having been in our thoughts as we watched our sons at play in the dusky summer heat. A little girl in a long cotton shift, came around the side of the fountain and climbed into her father’s lap.
“I’m going to be in second grade,” she chirped, blonde hair tousled.
Did that mean she had been in first grade the December before? I was so glad that this one, tiny nameless little girl was alive in a piazza in mid-July.
The mother said, “Our friend offered us the apartment, and we thought, you know, why wait?”
I nodded. How smart this family was to seize time together in the sultry, gelato-filled Italian evening. I smiled, mute, wondering about all the families that send their children off to school without a premonition that a day could go horribly wrong.
When we do lockdown drills at school, that little girl’s face floats before me. Steeling myself, I force myself to do my job, which is to walk the main building, to be as brave as I need to be in the drill.
On one of the lockdown practice drills, I came up a flight of steps to discover several Upper School students hesitating in the corridor.
“Move it,” I shouted, unlike myself. They slipped into a room, locked the door, pulled the shade.
A few minutes later, when the door to a classroom swung open under my hand, I calmly said, “Hi, girls. Let’s check the lock on this door, shall we?” And, the teacher, abashed, looked at it with me, realizing she had twisted the mechanism the wrong way when she thought she was locking the door. It could happen to any of us.
I love working with teachers and staff, parents and our board and watching girls and tiny boys grow up. I love the joy on a child’s face when she masters her multiplication tables, or scores a goal in soccer or the satisfaction evident at the conclusion of every Senior Speech. But, I loathe the fact that every school needs lockdown drills because there are people, unwell people, violent people, who hurt children.
The headmistresses who populated my children’s books faced all kinds of crises with aplomb; they taught me lots about equanimity and creativity and keeping my sense of humor and adapting to changing circumstances. In my mind’s eye, I see them, shaking their heads grimly at a world that requires these particular drills.