I am substitute teaching at an elementary school in Nelson County, where I live. At some point in the day, the lesson plan says, there will be an Intruder Alert Drill. After my homeroom class gathers, I explain to them what will happen, and that it will be only a drill.
A thin boy raises his hand. He has dark circles under his eyes as though this question has been keeping him up at night. “If it’s not just a drill,” he asks, “will we have to jump out the window?”
I turn my eyes from him to the quiet Blue Ridge Mountains beyond our second story classroom. Sure death from bullets, or possible death and broken bones from a leap to the concrete below? Make your choice, little man.
“No,” I say gently. Knife still in my heart, I instruct them to take out their science books and we turn our thoughts to ocean currents, wave action and the effect of jetties on beach erosion.
Later that morning a tone sounds and a woman’s voice comes over the intercom. Calm and friendly, it instructs the students to move to their places, adults to lock the door and turn off the lights.
The children know just what to do. As I turn the knob on the lock and hit the light switch, they cram their twenty bodies into the recessed cubby area, out of sight of the door. They are deathly quiet. I don’t like to think about all the things they are as silent as.
It strikes me, standing there before them, that this drill is little more useful than the “duck and cover” drills of the 1950’s and 60’s. After all, each classroom has a glass door. Someone intent on harming children need only smash the glass with the butt of one of the guns they’re no doubt armed with—the glass is tempered, so it should shatter easily and harmlessly—reach in, and unlock the door simply by turning the knob. All the potential targets are huddled conveniently in one location.
The children and I wait in dimness as we hear someone jiggle the handle of our door. I try not to imagine what this would feel like if it were not just a drill. If an intruder was trying the handle on the door to this 5th grade classroom. If the glass shattered. It hits me that there are people all over this country—right here in Virginia— who have experienced this. Many of these people are dead.
What would I do? I look around and the heaviest thing I can see is a microscope. Could I hit an intruder hard enough to stop him? Would I even have the chance? Would I wish I had armed myself?
No. I would wish that the United States Congress had taken action to limit the sale of handguns and assault weapons and ammunition. Wish that our own Senator Mark Warner were in favor of such limitations. I’d wish that the funerals—no, the lives— of our school children from sea to shining sea had more influence over our lawmakers than the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers’ lobbyists.
The drill is over, the soothing voice announces from the intercom. We may return to our seats. This time.