14 October 2008

Open Up


On Wednesday last (Odin's-day, oddly enough), while I was guest teaching in a high school, the school went into what was referred to as a "lock down." It was the start of second period, and the gym had just about acquired all of its students for the period when an announcement came over the loudspeaker. At least, that's what I'm told happened. I heard about it from the gym teachers, as the school-wide announcements do not penetrate the gymnasium itself, and I heard it whilst basing Friend Heather in a thigh stand for a photograph. We held until the photograph was taken, as a "lock down" doesn't particularly mean anything to us. After we got down, we asked what it meant, and were instructed that I had to go into the boys' locker room, Heather into the girls'. Okay, thought I, I'm not about to hang in the locker room; I'll go into the teacher's office.

And I did. And I wondered if I should lock the door (I understand language! [So long as it's English!]). It's a tiny office, and no one else was in there, though I could hear the raised voices of the boys in the adjacent locker room. Just as I was contemplating joining them, the male gym teacher for that period entered from there. He said a few noncommittal things to me about it being an eventful day, then turned back around and yelled at the boys to shut up, admonishing them for thinking everything's a joke, until all was silence. Then he turned back to me as if he'd barely interrupted himself and explained the situation a little better in a subdued tone. I felt bad, hearing him talk to me after he'd been so aggressive about the boys' silence, but I was also gradually coming to appreciate the motivations behind his severity.

In 1999, just a couple of months before I would graduate from college, two young men executed a plan to take their high school hostage with a murder spree that included the use of planned explosives. The whole thing was elaborately planned out, actually, and -- notwithstanding all the death and destruction wrought that day -- it could have been much worse had the plan gone accordingly. "Columbine" is now a word with tragic and unfortunate associations, probably for the foreseeable future, here in America. It's an Anglicization of the Italian colombino, which means dove, and "Colombina/Columbine" was a character popular in both the Italian and English commedia dell'arte traditions. I don't know what came first, but pictured above is a Columbine flower. Perhaps they're named for their resemblance to a dove; they characteristically hang in a shape like a dove with its wings tucked until they blossom, but they also aren't all white. Some are a rather vivid shade of red.

The main preoccupation for the gym teacher was the fact that the door out the back of the locker room seemed to be locked and he wasn't sure if he could unlock it. His feeling was that everyone would be safer in a certain back hallway, and he set about finding the key to those doors. Eventually he found it, and we all filed out of the locker room. I trailed the group, and found myself in a narrow, dim hallway that soon bent to the left and became a landing to two flights of concrete stairs that made a sort of u-turn, where there was a second, smaller landing. At the top, where I remained, were double doors that led outside and were locked with a heavy-duty wedge bar; presumably this was part of the appeal of this room, such as it was. The students all just fit on the two flights of stairs and landings, and most sat, preparing for a long wait. From the top landing, I could see everyone but a couple of boys at the base. It was cramped once people sat, but no one thought of spreading out a bit back toward the direction from which we came. We waited.

I went to one of these mega-schools that were popular to build in the 70s -- James W. Robinson Secondary School. Robinson, as we and everyone in the area called it, was named in honor of a certain Sergeant James W. Robinson, Jr., the first Virginia resident to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Vietnam conflict. The school is massive, and it needs to be to hold the some 4,000 students day in and day out. I found its size intimidating when I first arrived (in spite of attending the almost equally massive Lake Braddock Secondary for two years), aggravating throughout my middle years there and ultimately it became a weird point of pride in my final months there and thereafter. I would never have admitted this at the time, though. I felt largely oppressed by my circumstances, due to too many factors to get into just now, not the least of which was simply a seeming inability to understand that I was going through profound changes. I turned it around just before my senior year, but up until that time I was increasingly falling into stereotype (or archetype, if you will). You know the type. I kept to myself as much as I could. I even took to wearing the ubiquitous black trenchcoat.

The students had already changed into shorts and t-shirts for their gym classes, and the stairwell was pretty chilly. By and large, they were very well-behaved. It was only natural that their whispering would occasionally escalate, and we'd remind them, or they'd remind each other, with a "shh!" The teacher explained to me, as I tried to look responsive without actually making any sound (I wanted to avoid any hypocrisy, and figured that lacking any rapport I ought to lead by example), that they ran drills in lock-down procedure frequently -- too frequently, he felt. It made the students take it less seriously than they ought. Then again, this particular time could be a case of an aggravated parent on campus, or perhaps a building search for contraband. He didn't name the other possibility. He didn't have to. He went on to explain that they didn't hear all the announcements in the gym, certainly not in the stairwell. So, periodically he would call his fellow gym teachers on his cell phone to see what they knew. He even called someone at the elementary school (a separate building). No one had any information for him. We shushed the students again, and he told them all to just relax.

I've been pretty quiet in my 300+ entries to date on the subject of September 11, 2001, but that's not because I'm at all removed from the experience. On bad days, I'm avoiding it; on good days, I'm rising above and moving on. Both explanations are to say that it was the kind of event that one never quite epitomises in description. You had to be there, as the old comic excuse goes. What I can say about that day, for myself, is that it has a lasting and highly personal effect on me. It's a little darkly humorous for me, these people who advertise "Never forget." The memory of it lives at the back of my head like a patient worker, occasionally pressing his button or pulling his lever. I was rather alone that day: new guy at a temp job in Rockefeller Center, the phones mostly didn't work, giving me only the briefest opportunities to touch base with my girlfriend in Brooklyn, I was trapped for hours in Manhattan, picking up news from car radios and strangers' conversation. Eventually I found my way to the apartment of the only person I knew at the time who lived on the island. He wasn't really a friend of mine, but of my girlfriend's, and his place was packed with strangers watching the news. Sitting silent on a stool there, I worried about my dad in D.C., and relived the surreal morning, with its evacuation from the 50s down the twisting, disused fire stairwell of 30 Rockefeller Center. It seemed like we'd never get to the bottom.

When the bell for change of classes rang, no one needed to be shushed. It seemed to remind everyone that time was passing, and the longer we had to wait, the more likely it seemed that whatever motivated our lock-down was a dire circumstance. Minutes after the bell rang, the whispering started up again amongst the boys. As our time in the stairwell passed the hour mark, I stretched against the railing and the cold, and some of the students began to be more aggressive in their efforts to make sense of the situation, or at least lighten the mood. Some were playing a silent game (save for occasional involuntary victory cheers) that involved flicking out digits on both hands against one another. Some asked me who exactly I was; they'd never gotten an explanation on what they were doing in class that day. Others tried to nap or discuss quietly. One young man seemed to continually take it on himself to take charge of the mood and, by and large, he was pretty good at disrupting expectation and continuity with his joking. He seemed popular with the class, in a jester kind of way. Soon, talking to no one in particular, his kidding turned to half-serious plans for what to do when someone burst in with an automatic weapon. It was on everyone's mind. You'd occasionally hear one of them add a onomatopoetic gun noise to his whispered conversation. The jester was still trying to be light, but he was scared too, and losing his audience, boys getting variously agitated into signs of despair, or aggression. So I took a gamble. "Hey, seagull," I said in a normal tone of voice (he was wearing a t-shirt with a seagull silhouette on the front), then whispered, "If you're going to plan for us, whisper it." Then I offered a wry smile, hoping he'd get me. He did, simultaneously embarrassed at being caught out and pleased with the attention and the hushed chuckles of his peers. The tension did not stay away for long before mounting again.

After about a hour and a half of nothing, we got the call that the lock-down was over, and we could return to our third-period classes. It didn't quite engender the relief you might imagine, though everyone was pleased to march out from the chilly stairwell. We all returned to the locker room and changed, then walked out into the brightly lit gym to learn what we could. The students quickly took to the halls to access their community of gossip. Heather and I soon learned that the official announcement had actually stated that classes could take place -- just in the same locked room, until further notice. None of the gym teachers heard that. I felt a little ashamed at my relief over not having had to teach an hour-and-a-half gym class, but not at my hiding with all the men. It was the only sensible course of action, given the information we had. As we watched students flow out from the doors that faced onto a windowed hallway, one of the gym teachers said, "Look at the cop car pulling away. See that dog in the seat? It must have been a drug search." We went on to teach an abbreviated third period before leaving campus for lunch, a necessary diversion. The beginning of our last class for the day, seventh period, was interrupted a few minutes in by an announcement from the principal. He congratulated everyone on a clean report for drugs, including some students themselves who had been pulled from their classrooms. In something of a tangent, he went on to admonish those older students who were violating traffic laws when driving off school property, and let them know that they could expect an increased police surveillance along the road at that hour. "But overall: good job today."

When I was in high school, I was often very angry. I was also, often, terrifically depressed. I'd have a lot of answers for you if you asked me why, and I believed in them very much. I was creating so much -- my world view, my appetites, my self -- at such a frenzied pace that it was important to me to know the things I knew. We complain a lot about teenagers' personalities, but in terms of life stages it's really where the rubber meets the road, more often than not. All that ambitious, energetic emotion for learning that children have meets all that complex, interactive consequence that adults enjoy. It's confusing even without the sea change that released hormones bring to . . . well, everything. It's exciting. It's terrifying. Particularly for those of us who've been through it already, and understand the potential for disaster, and feel responsible for them.

It's hard to write about this without offering some sweeping verdict on it all (harder still, in some respects, not to relate it back to government or religious issues). That's not what I'm writing for, though. I'd like to avoid that. Instead, I mean to do what I do with other, less traumatic events here at the Aviary. That is, write out my experience in an effort to come to some kind of better understanding about it. Opinions must enter into it: I don't agree with using a "lock down" as any sort of practical device for something other than an immediate emergency. To wit, I disagree with using it to facilitate investigation, or set an example for teenagers to let them know they stand a chance of being caught at something. Yet I appreciate its necessity for preparedness. It seems extreme, but if you read the details of the Columbine incident, it's evident that the scenario was disastrously mismanaged by the authorities. Of course it was -- it was virtually unprecedented. And if the authorities have to shape up procedurally, so ought the schools. We drill for the potential of fire, of earthquake. This is another kind of natural disaster.

But. "Natural" does not mean it is without cause. Quite the opposite, in fact. I've read the details, and I saw Elephant in the theatre, and I wore a black trenchcoat through high school, and played Doom and fantasized about all sorts of socially morbid scenarios, and I still don't presume to explain the reasons behind Klebold and Harris' actions. What I do mean is to suggest that regularly cowering in a darkened room and being forbidden to speak might, just might, be more a part of the problem than of any sort of solution. Giving a society (and what else is high school than a constantly evolving society?) a little information and then turning their ignorance back on them as a kind of preemptive punishment, that's frustrating. In fact, revolutions have been begun for less. Unfortunately, most teenagers aren't yet capable of revolution, of the organization and long-view perspective required to make a social change. What they are capable of is making louder, more extreme choices until someone hears them. Hell: Most of my so-called choices in high school, in retrospect, were little more than reactions. Teenagers are exceptional at reacting, and we discount that ability at our, and their, risk.

Let people talk. Listen. Please.


Dave Y said...

Why are you opposed to the lockdown as a tool to facilitate investigation?

Jeff said...

It's a complicated issue, but when I weigh all the factors I can come up with, ultimately I feel using a "lock down" for investigation engenders greater mistrust and fear than its worth for whatever possibility of discovery it might avail. And it does so in a community wherein every day should be about building healthy relationships and communciation. If there's probable cause for believing a student or students are in possession of weapons or life-threatening drugs on school property, then I can see the sense in a "lock down"; but I consider that an immediate crisis. Do we extend similar rights to our children that we ask of our government? I'm not a parent yet, so I can hardly say. But I'd like it to be so.