Lockdown: This Is Not a Drill [or] The Subjunctive and Other Forms of Terrorism

Blogging is narcissistic, but we should be talking about threats of violence at schools.

In Spanish, you can’t talk about something as though it is a fact if there is any doubt about its existence. Not if you want to be grammatically correct anyway. This is because Spanish is a practical language. It possesses an entire linguistic category dedicated to addressing things that may not actually be true: the widely used and irrationally feared subjunctive.

I harbor great respect for the subjunctive. After all, we can’t take for granted something that may not actually be true.

In English, for example, we can say, “I hope everything is OK.” But is just sounds so certain, doesn’t it? And we’re merely expressing a hope. Everything might not be OK. In Spanish, you have to manipulate the verb “to be” so that instead of using es, which corresponds to is in English, we have to use sea, the subjunctive version of “to be.” Therefore, “I hope everything is OK” in Spanish would be, “Espero que todo sea bien.” Because maybe everything is not OK. We can’t be sure.

A couple months ago, I tried to express this concept to my students with the help of Carlos Ponce and a song called, “Busco una mujer,” (“I’m looking for a woman”). I told them that Carlos Ponce has to use the subjunctive throughout this song because maybe he will never find the woman he seeks. Maybe she does not exist. Poor Carlos Ponce.

And just as I could see the room full of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds caring a little bit less, I heard her voice spilling soothingly out of the school’s intercom system. “Attention,” she said, sounding like a yoga teacher announcing a change in pose, “The school is now on lockdown. This is not a drill. Students may not leave the building. Please remain in your classrooms even after the bell.”

Maureen*. I can’t think of a better person to be a school principal. She moves like she is underwater: slow, flowy, peaceful. Maybe she is a mermaid. I wouldn’t be surprised. Her wisdom and quiet control attract respect, but she doesn’t have to say anything to gain it. A sort of calm authority just emanates from her, like wake in the water. No one would dare disrespect Maureen. Yet she is fair and kind, like the time when I accidentally set off the fire alarm and the entire school, pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, had to evacuate their classrooms and line up on the soccer field. I heard her whispery words through the walky-talky system: “We’re still determining the cause of the alarm,” she said without a trace of panic in her voice. I had to come clean. She paused, looked at me for a moment and said, “That’s fine. We were due for a drill anyway,” and smiled revealing perfect teeth beneath her matte plum lipstick. Why can’t everyone be more like Maureen?

But now she was announcing something serious. A lockdown. What a stupid compound word. Don’t we lock things up, and shouldn’t it therefore be called a lockup? English is not a practical language. But regardless, its meaning is clear. I am sadly experienced with locking classroom doors and hiding under desks thanks to the infamous Columbine shooting that happened when I was a kid.

But Maureen didn’t sound worried. She may as well have been announcing a campus-wide nap. Her way of speaking and her flowy pants and tops make me think of a character from a video my sister and I used to watch as children called, We Sing in Sillyville. It was a movie about a town that had lost all its color. Or maybe just the main character had lost all the color in her typically multi-colored jumpsuit, which I assure you was better off colorless. But there was a character who wore long, tinkling necklaces and loose-fitting silk tops. My sister and I got a kick out of the way she said, “Let’s make it brighter in here,” in a sing-song voice and spun in a circle, the room suddenly illuminating. We used to reenact that scene in the bedroom that we shared, taking turns flicking on the light switch, timing it just right so that the room would light up precisely when one of us twirled in a circle. “Let’s make it brighter in here!” we would say. That’s what Maureen is like. So I didn’t really worry. But then she came on the loud speaker again to repeat her message and to remind us that this was not a drill. That no one was to leave the building under any circumstances.

And this is when you realize that even though in reality you are equally as uninformed and confused as the students, you are now the responsible adult. The students now look to you for instruction. And what do you know?

I had a similar realization just a few months ago when a scrawny, puritanical freshman paused before leaving my class to ask if I thought it was OK for him to eat his pizza that had been in his backpack all day. My first inclination was to say yes. Why not? But then I had to check myself. I mean, I would totally eat a piece of pizza that had been in my backpack all day. I would totally eat anything, really. But suddenly I felt this immense amount of pressure that comes from waking up one morning and playing the role of responsible adult. Because that’s why he was asking me, right? He thinks I know better than he does just by virtue of being a grownup. And suddenly saying yes seemed like a risky response. His health potentially depended on my answer, and I do not know what I’m talking about. Especially when it comes to food. I have no sense of food danger. I’ve eaten chicken hearts on a skewer right off the streets of Peru. My friend and I once shared soup in Ecuador that we’re pretty sure had a deer hoof in it. I once even ate a live shrimp in Japan. I have no radar that indicates whether food should be consumed or not.

(But I would like to take this opportunity to pat myself on the back as I suddenly realize that considering my lack of discretion, I have fared pretty well. I really haven’t experienced any vicious tummy troubles like many of my fellow travelers, with one exception in Hong Kong at a most unfortunate moment after climbing 268 steps to reach the biggest Buddha I’ve ever seen. But even that wasn’t as bad as some stories I’ve heard. Oh right, and that time I had a mystery illness that led to my hospitalization which most certainly came from food, probably ceviche. But other than that, I’ve done pretty well.)

“Does your pizza have meat on it?” I asked him, buying time. I don’t really know if it makes a difference. Someone once told me vegetables expire faster than meat. Is that true? I should look that up.

“No,” he stared at me, waiting for my response.

“Oh, OK then. I think it’s fine.” Which is true. I do think it’s fine. But I don’t really know.

“Wait yes!” He said, rethinking his previous answer. “Sausage!”

Now what? I still think it’s fine. But to be consistent, I should have said, “Oh, in that case, no, don’t eat it.” But I don’t really think it matters if there is meat on it or not. Either way, I would still eat it.

I told the kid that it was probably fine, but that he should get a second opinion.

“OK,” he shrugged, and was off, gigantic backpack tipping him forward a bit as he walked out the door. Good thing teenagers don’t really listen to adults anyway.

And on the day of the lockdown, I once again was supposed to have some kind of answer. As if the students were asking me, “Is it going to be OK?” and my automatic response was, “Yes of course!” But just like the pizza, I didn’t really know.

I tried to continue teaching, but it was understandably challenging to maintain their attention, especially since they already had trouble grasping why someone as dreamy as Carlos Ponce may never find the woman he seeks. They asked if they could look out the window to see what was going on, and I said, “Yes of course,” but then immediately thought, what kind of teacher lets her students stand in plain view in front of a glass window during a lockdown? “OK! Back to our desks now!”

At my school, all of the classrooms come equipped with what our students call a “terrorist stick,” which is basically a doorstopper that you squeeze beneath the door itself and under the knob to prevent someone from forcefully entering your room. The students asked if we could put it to use. I should have thought of that myself. Then they asked if they could barricade the door with a table and chairs. They were half-joking, but some of them seemed really worried. I was willing to let them do whatever made them feel more at ease, and whatever would distract them from the situation. I acted nonchalant, and suggested we continue to learn the subjunctive. They didn’t want to. Neither did I, if I’m honest.

And if I’m completely honest, I was a little nervous, and I am not generally a nervous person. I found myself conjuring up progressively darker and darker thoughts. At first it was just things like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do if there actually is a dangerous person on campus. And then I would reassure myself and think things like, Just keep the door locked. Maybe get all the kids to stay low to the ground. And then I would start to worry more and think, Maybe we should be quiet. Maybe we should turn off the lights. Maybe I should text someone? And perhaps the worst thought of all, I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no business being responsible in a situation like this.

And then my brain flashed before me the memory of Victoria Leigh Soto, the Newtown, Connecticut hero who threw herself in front of her students to protect them from flying bullets. She and I were born the same year.

The best thing I could think of was to tell the students that we should all just sit in a circle on the floor and share funny stories. Embarrassing moments, I suggested. And most of them complied, and I think it relieved some tension. One of the best things about teenagers is their ability to recover from things. One minute they’re a frustrated whirlwind of emotions, the next minute they’ve moved on, seemingly unaware (or maybe just indifferent) to the collateral damage they have caused.

Fortunately, the lockdown turned out to be the result of a nearby off-campus threat. A car with guns and possibly explosives was detained a few miles away, and as a result of some kind of law about schools within a certain number of miles of a certain kind of threat, we had to lock the school down. The law is reasonable and reassuring, but the fact that there was a man with guns and explosives nearby in such a quiet, family town is distressing. Equally reasonable yet distressing was my students’ instinct and familiarity with locking and barricading the classroom door.

But because the threat did not permeate our campus, the issue was just sort of swept away. The kids got over it almost immediately. Many even boasted about their lack of fear, or complained that they had to pee but were trapped in a classroom for two hours. They made jokes about being lucky that they didn’t have to take a test that day.

For the remainder of the day, I offered my students in each class period the opportunity to talk about what happened that morning. But no one really wanted to say much. It’s hard to talk about something that never materialized. Like Carlos Ponce’s elusive dream-woman, there was lots of speculation, but nothing certain. And an almost-tragedy is not granted the same language we use for actual tragedies.

But I think that’s part of the problem. There must be a special kind of language for talking about things that may not exist, but whose existence is tragically possible. All I can think in regards to the future of our young people in what is meant to be a safe, enriching environment is, espero que todo sea bien.

[*I changed her name because I don’t know the rules about these things, but trust me, her real name is SO PERFECT for her personality.]