Shari Winslow: Soft Targets

When I became a teacher, I didn’t realize that one of the expectations of my job would be to place my body between bullets and my kids.

schoolhallwayI dismissed my sophomore English class to lunch and peeled the plastic away from the vegetable lettuce wraps I’d picked up at the grocery store on the way to work.

“My God. My God. Oh, my God,” someone sputtered from the next room. Curious, I pushed open the door that led into the inner computer lab. Two of my colleagues were standing by the copier.

“What’s going on?” one of them asked.

The other teacher waved her cell phone frantically. “There was a shooting at an elementary school. He killed them. He killed all the kids!”

Panic thumped inside my chest. I listened to the horrified murmurs around me, but somehow, my colleagues continued the business of microwaving their Lean Cuisines.

“Are you coming to lunch?” One of them held open her classroom door. I shook my head. I couldn’t talk, couldn’t eat. Back inside my own classroom, I dropped my untouched lunch into the trash and wept into my hands. I couldn’t catch my breath. It was all I could do not to leave, to drive across town to my six-year-old daughter’s classroom door. In my afternoon class, I put on a movie for my seniors so I wouldn’t have to talk. I bounced my leg restlessly until the last bell.

That afternoon, I watched more parents than usual swarm to the school and collect their children, hurrying them home. The playground was empty.

My children’s elementary school is an L-shaped painted brick building in which each classroom has two doors: one which opens to an inner hallway and one which opens to the outdoors. When my daughter started kindergarten, I stood outside with her each morning as the kids lined up outside each door. When the first bell rang, the teachers opened the doors and let the children in.

Plenty of parents dropped their children off in the parking lot and let them scurry around the building to the lines outside their classrooms. No adults patrolled the playground at that hour, aside from the few parents who lingered like I did until the bell.

After Sandy Hook, during that final week before winter break, parents received a notification that students would begin the day in “Morning Assembly.” Instead of gathering at the classroom doors, the children would go straight into the multi-purpose room that functioned as both gymnasium and cafeteria. They would gather by class, and teachers met them at the door. The doors opened twenty minutes before school started. I never pulled away from the curb until I saw her safely inside.

classroom

 

In February of 2013, my sister-in-law’s e-mail landed in my inbox on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday afternoon.

So I met with my friend Ed last week. He is the main photographer for the Chamber of Commerce. I’ve known him for a few years now. Very nice guy. Anyway, he has been a part of this local safe gun club for a while now and he knows that Aaron likes to target shoot and everything, but he knows I am not very comfortable or experienced with it. I mentioned that you and I had talked about going and taking a gun safety class and he actually offered to teach the two of us together sometime. Just thought I would run it past you and see if you’re interested. We could also just go to the new gun range sometime and see if they are offering classes. I’m not thrilled about it, but I guess I’m willing to try it and I’d prefer to go with someone. Let me know what you think.

Two months after Sandy Hook, the last thing I wanted to do was shoot a gun.

But my sister-in-law lives in a house full of guns, and she’s right: she should learn how to handle them. My brother said, “I don’t want you to freak out when I’m cleaning them in the kitchen. I want you to know what you’re looking at. I want you to know how to pick them up safely if you need to.”

My brother inherited his guns from our grandfather, gifts passed through generations, heavy with history—the love language of silent men.

I was so far out of my comfort zone I couldn’t even see it. But at the same time, I felt like I needed to know this. I needed to feel the weight, literally.

My hands were cold during our first Saturday morning lesson. I didn’t want to touch the gun, but I was a dutiful student. I learned the parts: Magazine. Slide. Frame. Ed called this “handgun familiarity.”

The next weekend, we went to the gun range.

As it turns out, I’m a natural. I handled four different guns, learned how to handle the differences in recoil, and by the end of the night I felt comfortable loading and shooting them by myself.

Ed said, “So, you’ve actually shot before, then?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “you have a good natural stance.”

A few days later, my sister-in-law e-mailed again: Ed said you were such a natural the other day at the shooting range that he was wondering if he could get your e-mail to add it to the newsletter e-mail list for his Armed Defense Training Association gun group.

I shared this with my husband over Thai food that night. He frowned.

“I kind of get the appeal of going to the gun range,” I told him. “I wasn’t blowing off steam, really. I wasn’t, like, visualizing people who piss me off when I was aiming at those targets. But I was so clear. Just going through all the steps to make sure I was doing everything safely—I had to concentrate, which felt really good because I was totally out of my own head. Sometimes I just need to not be in my head so much.” I don’t think he really understood. I’m not sure I did, either.

I didn’t tell him how aggressive I felt, how the feel of the gun in my hand changed something about the way I stood, the way I set my jaw.

My brother wanted to know if I’d had fun, and he told me our dad would be proud.

I wrote back to my sister-in-law: Thanks, but I think I’m going to pass on that.

The week after my lesson, I attended an after-school information session on what would actually happen during an active shooter situation at our own school. I stood in the cafeteria and listened as our School Resource Officer, a member of the local police department, explained how they’ve begun to train for such things. Beat by beat, he described what would happen. It would be mere minutes, he said, and swarms of trained officers would be everywhere.

Too much can happen in a minute.

“What about our lockdown procedure? Do we stick with that, or…?” asked a science teacher.

“So, if there’s an active shooter on campus,” the School Resource Officer said, “and you think you can run, you run. Forget protocol. If you can’t run, hide. If you can’t hide, figure out how to fight.”

I think about my classroom and its two doors: one leading outside, where kids could run down the hill, through the courtyard and community garden, into the woods or to the streets, the surrounding neighborhoods. The other door leads into the lab. They could hide there, or they could run through any of the adjoining classrooms. I think about which doorway I would block with my own body.

schoolbus

Sandy Hook shattered something in me. Five years later, I can still hardly stand to say those words, much less type them. I still cannot read a complete account of the events of that day.

Each time we have a mass shooting, I break a little more. The hopelessness seeps into my bones and rage makes it difficult to breathe.

When I became a teacher, I didn’t realize that one of the expectations of my job would be to place my body between bullets and my kids. When I became a parent, I didn’t know that I would pray for my children’s teachers for the very same reason. I didn’t know that my colleagues and I would talk about the best ways to hide our students, or which way we would send them running. I didn’t know that I would have to say to my kids that yes, I would take a bullet for them.

Shari Winslow teaches high school English while raising a middle schooler and a second grader, which makes dinner conversations interesting. She finds joy in a freshly scrubbed bathtub, writing alone in coffee shops, and hiking with her family, not necessarily in that order.

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