Learning in lockdown


I spent the beginning of my school career at Thornapple Elementary. I loved it there. Lockdown drills at Thornapple were fun. We’d turn all the lights off and huddle on the floor, giggles spilling out of us like water in a boiling kettle.

They told us that lockdowns were for when animals got into the school. At my lovely Thornapple, safely tucked away in the woods, this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. I think a deer got into our school once. And we definitely had a rogue dog or two tear through our hallways, as the teachers tried in vain to peel their gleeful students away from the windows of the locked classroom doors.

It took a few years to realize the real reason for lockdowns. But that looming possibility was ever so distant, like a far-away nightmare, an imaginary monster under the bed.

At some point, lockdown drills became a little less fun. At some point, they told us that we were going to cover the windows of the classroom doors with construction paper during lockdown drills. At some point, the no-talking rule became less of a fun game and more of a solemn command.

In fifth and sixth grade, I used to watch The Ellen Show every day after school. One day, my daily viewing of the show was interrupted by a breaking news report.

Kids younger than me in a town in Connecticut had been gunned down in their elementary school. I bet they thought of their school as a sweet little safe haven, the way I still think of Thornapple. Sixth grade Reena was shellshocked. Did they have time to go into lockdown mode? Did they think there was a deer in the school?

Tremors from the tragedy reached my school, Central Woodlands. They told us that all classroom doors were now going to always be locked, and we were going to start saying the pledge every day.

A few years later, at Central Middle, lockdown drills always seemed to fall during my orchestra hour. I remember multiple times after these drills, class discussions would ensue, instigated by my friend and I bursting with anxious questions about the idea of being out in the halls or in the bathroom when an emergency lockdown was announced. Our teacher would face the onslaught of our fretful inquiries with a regretful, solemn face and as reassuring answers as he could muster.

The looming possibility was a little more tangible at that point, the news a little louder, the fear a little more formidable. Those discussions left me sick to my stomach, ice-cold terror coursing through my veins just at the thought.

This year is my last year at Central High. I entered through the doors on the first day of school, walking past the buzzer by the freshman doors without a glance. Later in the day, they told us that there would now be buzzers and cameras at all the entrances. No one can get in without buzzing in and being identified on the cameras. No hats are ever permitted, for everyone must be identifiable. Doors would be locked after 8 AM and after 3 PM. Propping doors is a grave offense.

A few weeks into school, I was struck with a debilitating migraine. My mom came to school to bring me medicine and food. My technologically challenged mother approached the doors and found herself bewildered by the buzzer system.

“It’s like a prison!”

On Wednesday, we had a lockdown drill. Half my class pushed their desks and backpacks into a cluster at the center of the classroom. We huddled into a corner of the pitch black classroom like soldiers in a trench. It was Spanish class. “Si puedes ver la ventana, no tienes una silla buena.” If you can see the window, you don’t have a good seat.

For the first time, I imagined if it wasn’t a drill and let myself drift into the once far-away nightmare that’s a little too close for comfort now. I wondered if I’d cry or scream. I wondered if I’d run to grab my phone from the calculator pouch at the front of the room. I wondered who I’d text first and what words would flow from the fear and adrenaline. I wondered if I’d submit to sitting in the corner like a sitting duck, if I’d freeze, or if I’d make a run for the window.

Someone in the halls jiggled the door handle, checking if it was locked. It jolted me, startling me out of my frightening trance.

Never have I felt closer to that all-too-real nightmare.

I’m just trying to learn.