“If I don’t do it, nobody else will,” she thought to herself as she threw the covers off and rolled out of bed.
The persistent beeping of the alarm on her phone reminded her that she needed to leave in promptly forty-five minutes. Hurriedly, she showered as her husband woke their daughter and got their morning started. As she hopped out, her husband came into the bathroom wiping sleep from his eyes.
“Morning,” he yawned.
“Good morning. How did you sleep?”
“Meh, I think we need new pillows. Ours are turning colors and poking me.”
“Yeah, I think they’re growing things. That’s what I get for buying the cheap ones,” she leaned in for a quick kiss after braiding her hair and throwing on some clothes.
“Why are you in such a hurry this morning?”
“I have students coming in for tutorials and about eighty-nine essays left to read before grades are due at 4 today,” she replied as she stepped into her shoes.
“Ah, well don’t work too hard,” he smiled as he smacked her butt in a loving, playful way.
“Mmmhmm,” she muttered as she checked the time on her phone, “I’ll be home early though.”
“Mama!” A scream penetrated her ears and she dropped the papers she had been gathering.
Her eyes widened and she bolted toward the door.
“ANNA,” she yelled, “Are you okay??”
Her four year old sulked toward her, shoulders slumped, visibly sobbing clutching something in her hand.
“What is it baby?” she persisted.
“H..h…e…he…he’s d…de..de…dead,” she finally muttered through the sobs.
“Oh, who is dead, love?”
“P…ph…ph…Phil…” she thrust out her hands and opened her fingers to reveal the lifeless goldfish to her mother.
“Oh baby, what happened?”
“I…I…I…wanted to let him sleep in a real b..b..be..bed…” she broke off into uncontrollable sobs.
“Wait, you wanted Phil to sleep with you?” her face contorted as she restrained a smile while simultaneously forcing a cough so as not to give way to the fit of laughter that was bubbling so close to the surface. “Anna, fish sleep in water. They cannot breathe like people. He can’t be out of his tank.”
“But he doesn’t have a bed, mama. He can’t sleep without a bed. Did I kill him, mama? Did I kill Phil?”
“Oh baby…” her voice trailed off. There was not enough time to talk through the never-ending cycle of questions about life that followed the sudden death of a family pet. Her students were expecting her. “We will discuss this after school today, okay? You have to get ready for your class party. Let’s put him somewhere safe, so we can have a funeral this afternoon. We will talk all about Phil’s life and how these things happen tonight. How does that sound?”
“Can we get a new Phil?”
Closing her eyes and admiring her daughter’s ability to bounce back from tragedy so quickly, she smiled and sighed, “Of course, my love, of course.” She brushed her daughter’s cheek lovingly with her fingertips. “I have to get to work, little bit. I’ll see you at your party, alright?”
“Okay, mama, don’t forget to bring the cupcakes. You promised sprinkles,” she sniffled and wiped her eyes, “If you don’t bring them, nobody else will.”
“Of course,” She replied as she entered an alarm into her phone to remind her to leave work early enough to pick up the cupcakes. “1:45 should do it,” she thought to herself.
She kissed her daughter’s cheek swiftly and squeezed her gently.
“Will, I’m leaving!”
“Bye babe! See you this evening. You’re getting Anna, right? I have a meeting downtown after lunch.”
“Yes! See you this evening. By the way, there was an accident. Phil is in a plastic baggie on the table, can you…uh…put him in the fridge or something until I get home.”
The curiosity in his voice was evident as he choked out, “Uh…” “Just don’t ask questions!” She shouted back as she choked back the giggles again.
“Yes ma’am! Love you!”
“I love you more!” She shouted as she headed out to the garage.
The bell to release students from second period rang, and she bolted out the door.
“Gotta pee, gotta get coffee. Gotta pee, gotta get coffee. Gotta pee, gotta get coffee.” She chanted as she darted toward the faculty bathroom. One turn of the handle and she realized that the bathroom break was pointless during this passing period. “Gotta get the coffee, gotta get the coffee, gotta get the coffee.” She threw the door open to the teacher’s lounge, nearly knocking a student teacher over. “So sorry Leslie!”
“It’s okay, Julie! Are you okay?”
“Yes! You know how it is, the bathroom is oc…”
“Occupied? Oh my gosh! All day long. I know it. I just put a new pot of coffee on.”
“Child, I could hug you right now, but your hands are full so I won’t! Are you all testing again?”
“Ugh. Yes, Mr. Mathers got the post-assessment results and was not happy, so we redid the entire Pre-Algebra Unit.”
“I am just not a numbers person. I don’t know how you all do it. You’re probably stuck with a class full of writers.”
“We flew through the lesson. They’ll get it; it’s just going to take another round.”
“Ahh, good luck, and God bless you for the coffee!”
She reached the coffee pot and smiled a thankful smile.
As she poured the coffee, she created a mental checklist of the things left to do today. There weren’t quite as many papers to grade, but still plenty to keep her busy. She had one parent conference over lunch, and then her sub would show up at 1:30 to review the rest of the day’s lesson. She hated to leave her students, especially amidst all the projects and research papers that they were working on, but they’d begun running like a well-oiled machine the last couple of weeks. No matter how many years she had been doing this, there was nothing, short of Anna’s accomplishments, that made her glow with pride like the moment that her students found the road to their success.
Each students’ success story looked different, but there was no denying when they took their first step down that path. It was rare that an entire class would start on their journeys to success at the same time, but as the year drew to a close, more and more students found their way. It was that time of the year that she could finally spend less time reviewing expectations and more time helping them find out how to take their work to the next level. She spent less time chasing down missing papers and more time filling out recommendations for Honors’ programs or community achievement awards. She was making less phone calls home to talk about concerns and more calls home to praise her students. It was past Christmas, but THIS was the most wonderful time of the year.
She headed back to her room, taking the route that passed the faculty bathroom one last time. Singing silent praises as the door opened with ease, she rushed to take care of business and get back to the classroom.
Half-way through fifth period things changed.
The day was flying by, and she had not realized how late it was. The substitute had emailed and said he would be late. She sent a quick text to the room mom asking if she could pick up cupcakes for Anna’s party stressing the importance of rainbow sprinkles with the added promise of girls’ night and wine, and then dove back into class. After finishing their warm-up, her never quiet room was filled with extra excitement on this day. Her students had collaborated with the advanced art class to do a cross-curricular project. It was the culmination of weeks of hard-work, and the positive energy passing from student to student moved quickly through the room.
Until it didn’t.
A violent burst of sequential pops erupted in the distance. For a moment there was silence. Not the silence of a house with a toddler sleeping. Not the silence of a theater in the moment between the end of an amazing movie and the start of the credits. Not the silence that takes hold of the room when guests wait for “I do,” from the bride and groom.
This silence was life-changing. This silence was life-threatening.This silence was life-ending.
In that silence, 28 pairs of eyes that had not lived a full life looked at her.
Seconds passed. Three more bursts. Louder.
She looked at her students and to the ones closest to the window she said in a firm but pleading voice, “You three, close the blinds.” Her voice wavered but did not falter as she scanned the room for items to use as a barricade she glanced at the clock.
The red dots blinked angrily on the black pixelated background.
“Anna…” her heart ached. Her heart stopped. Her heart broke.
Seconds passed. One more burst.
The sound was getting louder.
The sound was getting…closer.
Turning on her heels as calmly as possible, she uttered, “We are in lockdown mode, as soon as I close the curtain, shove all the desks in front of the door.”
“Breathe in, breathe out,” she told herself as she rushed to the already locked door to pull closed the makeshift curtain she’d crafted in August. She reached the window, grasping the cloth desperately she hesitated as she saw two panicked students frantically moving through the hall. Throwing the door open, she grabbed them, threw them inside the classroom and slammed the door shut.
Seconds passed. Three more bursts.
“Why haven’t they made an announcement?” she thought.
“Flip those two tables over on their sides and everyone behind them.” Unsure of how the words were making their way from her brain out her mouth, she continued to stay in motion. It was not fight or flight. She had no fight in her. It was sheer survival mode.
The two long tables joined perpendicularly in the corner of the room creating an impromptu fort; desks, bookshelves, chairs, and a toppled filing cabinet created a bumpy terrain in front of the door in effort to slow down any intruder. Books littered the floor, and art projects and poems were scattered across the room. In the blink of an eye, prized possessions and priorities turned into trash and debris covering what was now a battlefield.
Seconds passed. Two more bursts.
This time there was a faint pinging sound that accompanied the shots. The ping of a used shell ejecting and hitting a locker clattering as it hit the tile. For the first time, she heard screams. Blood-curdling, heart-wrenching screams. The wall behind them shuddered creating an instinctive and collective gasp from them all.
Seconds passed. One more burst.
Her children huddled together, the tears flowing, the muffled sobs as friends embraced. Students texted their families asking questions, but so many messages hung in that place between sent and delivered making the moments feel like days.
She sat closest to the door holding a student’s hand who sat praying in an undertone slightly behind her. The peach fuzz just making its appearance on his face.
Behind her sat a girl who had spent the previous day hanging posters, hoping for votes for Student Council President.
Behind her sat a girl who’d just competed in the One Act play with the school. They got third and on Friday the were to perform for the school.
Behind her sat a boy that had just moved to the area. His parents divorced suddenly, and he’d just started actively participating in class discussions.
Behind her sat a boy that was obsessed with science and had read every book on space that he could get ahold of. He stood up for people that couldn’t stand up for themselves.
Behind her sat a girl, the cheerleading captain, who ran a welcoming committee for new students. Her laugh could light up a room and her green eyes actually twinkled.
Behind her sat a girl that possessed a quiet fortitude. She was generous and kind with an amazing sense of humor that she reserved for only a select group of people.
Behind her sat a girl that had gotten in a fight with her mom before she left for school that day. The girl came to her that morning in tears because she couldn’t seem to figure out just how to communicate with her mom even though they tried so hard.
Behind her sat a group of children that had not lived their lives.
Behind her sat a group of children that had not seen the world.
Behind her sat a group of children that had so much still to contribute to the world.
Behind her were future doctors, explorers, engineers, researchers, writers, artists, entertainers, rescue workers, counselors, and teachers.
Seconds passed. One more burst.
The sound reverberated through her core as she heard the glass shatter and the handle turn from the outnside. He stepped inside, and it was immediately evident that their minefield of furniture was no more disarming than a toddler’s jungle gym.
A second passed. One more burst as he shot in a spray around the room. The sobs were no longer muffled. The screams were not reserved, and the tears were flowing hysterically. Instantly she realized that the hope she had invested in their table fortress was not enough to protect them from the insanity that stepped into their school that day. Help was not coming fast enough. She was the only help they had.
As she stood, ready to take action, she could not help but look at the clock.
“If I don’t do it, nobody else will,” she thought as she shoved the closest desk toward him.
She heard an eruption of shots.
“The police are here,” she thought as the darkness enveloped her.