Mr. Cruz’s Editorial: What it’s Like to be in a Real LockDown

Mr. Cruz “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your principal speaking.” I looked at the clock and wondered what would cause our principal to get on the PA in the middle of class.  The battle over instructional interruptions and PA usage is a constant one at this school and one that nearly cost me my job once upon a time, but that’s not the point here.  The point is that I was battling the clock and this interruption was hurting my chances of victory.  This is my big class; 34 AP students in a room built to hold far fewer.  There are times where corralling 34 10th graders is a bit of a challenge, but for the most part these were great kids.  They work hard and do whatever I ask of them, and their grades bear this out. Of the three sections of this class that I teach, this group’s grades are significantly higher than those in my other two classes (of 28 and 34 each). The only real problem I ever run into with them is one caused by the thermostat.  Corners cut during the construction of this building a decade ago provided for one thermostat for every two rooms. The problem with this is that while I have 34 teenagers cranking out body heat, the room next door has around 20. Since the thermostat is placed in the room next door, my room is often too warm.  Normally, this isn’t a problem as my students have long since figured out when to get up and open a window or prop open the door to regulate the room’s temperature, but more on this later. Anyway, it was 11:20 in the morning, lunch would be here in 25 minutes and I had three things left to do when my principal cut in. “We are under a lockdown.” My high school is our nation in microcosm.  A fair number of your favorite writers and actors call this town home, their seven and eight figure houses sitting in the mountains that rim the town.  And more than half of my students receive free or reduced lunches. For many of my students, the free lunch that was coming their way in 25 short minutes is the only guaranteed meal they’ll have today.  And now, a gunman who’d escaped from Maricopa County Jail eight hours and one state away was pushing that meal farther and farther away from them. Wish that a lockdown is unusual here, but it’s not.  We average just under one of these per semester, so everyone knew what to do.  Dok Z closed my windows while his arch nemesis Nietzsche fixed my blinds so they’d come all the way down the window that looks out onto the courtyard that houses the recycling bins.  I calmly walked to the door, putting down the essays I was due to hand out for peer review and headed out into the hallway in front of my room. I nodded to my colleagues and smiled while we shepherded kids who’d moments ago been cutting class, into rooms, any room, but hopefully not mine.  I already had a full house. On my way back into my room I pulled a poster one of my students had made a few weeks ago explaining Social Darwinism off the wall next to my door.  I locked the door from the outside, kicked the door prop out from under the door pulled the door shut, turned off the lights and taped the poster over the window in my door.  It was 11:21 and room 10 was locked down. I love my kids. All clichés aside, my kids are incredible.  Most days, I feel as though they are getting an education in spite of the best efforts of the adults in their lives to deprive them of one.  On this day, I loved them because they’d successfully shifted gears from the Berlin Conference to proper essay writing technique to survival with the grace and beauty of Maria Callas belting out an aria. “Marco.” I called. “Polo.” They responded. Silence and darkness. “OK, we’re gonna be here for a while.  So, first question, is there enough light for us to keep doing the peer edits.” “Really?” Dok Z replied.  This is the smart kid, the nerdy kid who laughs at all my jokes and corrects me when my memory of dates and names is less than perfect.  If the good doctor was questioning continuing with the lesson, I knew that it was best to throw the lesson plan out the window. “OK,  Dok wins.  But you can’t blame me for trying, right?” They laughed. “A’ight my people.  Standard lockdown rules apply.  Lemme send some texts and emails, see if I can’t figure out what’s going on and then we’ll break open The Bucket.  Sound cool?” There were vague grumbles of agreement so I took that as a yes and started my fact finding. Your first job in a crisis is to keep your students safe.  The second job is perhaps more important than the first, because you can’t keep kids safe if they’re panicking.  So you have to keep them calm. The first external crisis I’d ever dealt with came on my 41st day as a teacher, September 11, 2001.  I was 22 years old and learned two important lessons that day.  1) The truth will calm students down and 2) I belong in the classroom.  But I couldn’t keep kids calm if I didn’t know what was going on, so I sent out a text to an old friend.  Coach was a local kid who joined the police department the day after I learned I was born to teach. After a few years he started to wonder if maybe he didn’t belong in the classroom instead so he switched careers, which is where we met.  After a few years of dealing with district bureaucracy he thought that dodging bullets was a better way to spend his life than dodging administrators, so he went back to the police force. “Buddy, locked down in room 10.  What’s going on?” He got back to me almost immediately.  “It’s real. Sit tight, you’re gonna be there for a long time bro.” I checked the local paper’s website, nothing.  I checked the local TV station’s site, nothing.  Information would come out in time and within half an hour I had the suspect’s mug shot and complete criminal record on my screen and a dozen students crowding around my desk to get a good look at the idiot that was keeping them from eating lunch.  For the duration of the time we’d spend together, I’d get kids walking over to my desk, wanting to take a look at him; wanting to size up their opponent. My kids are fighters and any good fighter knows that you need to size up your opponent before you throw the first punch.   The worst part of a lockdown is the silence. The silence punctuated by the sound of boots outside your window, out in the halls, above you, below you.  Every time I heard those boots I had to make a decision. Save other people’s children, or get home to my own son. Three years old and too young to remember me if… Since lockdowns aren’t unusual here, every classroom has been issued a bucket meant to be opened and utilized in case of a lockdown.  But really, it’s not just a bucket, it’s The Bucket. And so, as the lunch dismissal bell rang I set about the work of opening and inventorying The Bucket.  Maxi pads? Check. Six water bottles? Check. 15 granola bars? Check…and so on until I reached the bottom of the bucket which contained a red biohazard bag and 2lbs of kitty litter. “What’s that?” Nietzsche asked.   “It’s the toilet.”  I replied. Standard lockdown procedure: using the enclosed blanket create a curtained-off area in one part of your classroom.  Inside the area, place The Bucket, emptied and lined with the red biohazard bag. Then fill the bag with the 2lbs of kitty litter.  And pray it doesn’t come to that. “We’re hungry.” A few of my student started to whine.  Before I could break out the rations, students started pulling out their lunches and sharing them with their friends who didn’t have one on them, or at all.  “I have extra chips!” “Who wants half a sandwich?” “Wanna split an apple?” I love these kids. “OK guys, here’s the deal, I have 15 granola bars and some fruit snacks.  We have no idea how long we’re gonna be in here and anything that goes in is gonna have to come out…” “I am NOT peeing in a bucket.”  One of my young women blurted out.” “Yeah, I’d rather pee in my pants!” Her best friend said. “Guys, that’s your call, but do you want to be stuck in wet, smelly pants until we get out of here?  Seriously, bathroom’s in the corner, there’s an actual gallon of hand sanitizer on the desk next to The Bucket, it’s not great, but it’s what we’ve got, OK?  Anyway. You wanna divvy up the granola bars now…” “NOW!” they demanded.  And so I started to throw granola bars out into the dark, at the outstretched hands I was now able to barely make out.   As I played Manning Brother to my students I started thinking of how much food used to come in The Bucket.  I smirked as I assumed that budget cuts had led to the downsizing of the consumable portion of The Bucket’s contents.  As I found out via email a few minutes later, the reality was much sadder. Turns out that last year administration had purchased all of the food for lockdowns but had been so busy running the school that they’d never found the time to refill The Buckets.  And so when student volunteers stepped forward this year to restock, they found that much of what had been purchased had passed its expiration dates. Thus the downsizing. As hour one became hour two and at all points in between, my already warm room began to get warmer and warmer.  The smell was brutal. Teenagers don’t normally smell great, but put them under stress, in a warm environment and the funk leaves Doobie Brothers levels and hits Parliament.  Add to this that more and more students were avoiding using The Bucket. “So, do we have to use the bucket?”  A crew of young ladies said to me. “Yeah, looks like it.”  I replied “Really?” The first rule about using email is that you’re not supposed to use the all staff email list without prior authorization.  The second rule is that if you break the first rule, you’d best have a damned good reason. As I looked at my email I saw that a few of my colleagues thought that restroom usage was a damned good reason, so I chimed in asking for something, anything be done to save my young ladies the indignity of using a bucket for a toilet in a classroom full of their peers. The crazy thing about my job is that breaking this email rule can land you in a fair bit of hot water and seeing as how I’ve spent the last few years in water of various shades of hot I knew that this wasn’t the smart thing to do for my career.  But I wanted to be able to look these young kids’ parents and tell them I’d done what I could to get them through this. And that meant, getting them to the restroom. The word came back. Use the bucket.  So I looked around my darkened room at my kids. And I saw Gabi, the captain of the JV volleyball team quivering in a corner. She was sweating profusely, her skin glossy and taut.  She was holding her bladder. It was killing her. I got up on my desk and did what I had to do. “Hey guys, I have to pee. So I’m going to use The Bucket. Line forms in front of the white board.  Gabi goes first.” I went over to the corner, stepped behind the curtain and peed in front of my students. Gabi went next, then Nietzsche, then Link, then Zelda…. This wasn’t the first time I’d sat through one of these.  It wouldn’t be the last. And like all the others, at the end of our two and a half hours together, I knew I could look at my kids’ parents at the grocery store and tell them that I took care of them as if they were my own.  Just another day in room 10.]]>