The Great American School Experience: Hide In The Closet, Stay Quiet, and Hope Not To Die

They were still bagging up bodies at Stoneman Douglas High School when my 9 year old daughter told me her plan.

“We would hide in the closet.”

“Really? That’s all?”

“Yes, teacher told us that if there is an intruder we are to hide in the closet and stay quiet.”

I didn’t tell her that that plan wouldn’t work. I didn’t tell her if an intruder powered into her school, the first place they would look would be in the closets. No matter how quiet she was.

I also didn’t tell her that, intruder, is too advanced of a word for a 4th grader.

Intruder is a 7th grade word saved for learning about Cesar, the Roman Empire and barbarian migration.

As a parent and a teacher myself, I go to work scared now.

Today, in America, students and teachers pack their lunches, zip their school bags, go to school and die. They’re shot stepping off the bus, eating their Peanut Butter & Jelly, spinning their locker dial, and hiding quietly in closets like they were told.

In April of 1999, when I was 19, I sat in my Pennsylvania living room, watching students sprint out the double-doors of Columbine High School, across the green Colorado grass as police officers stood behind trees with leveled shotguns.

I, like most of America, was naive then. We believed that the massacre at Columbine High School was an isolated incident. An aberration. Two angry boys who slipped through the metaphorical cracks and found an armory of guns.

We said prayers, held hands and vigils and went back to school shaken but confident a tragedy like Columbine would never happen again.

It couldn’t. This was America.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

On Tuesday morning a student entered my classroom and announced there was another school shooting–the 17th school shooting in the first 11 weeks of 2018.

“Mr. Armstrong, did you know America now averages 1.5 school shooting a week?”

The closet in my daughter’s classroom is a long, narrow closet in the back of the room where the students hang their coats on little hooks and place their lunch bags on wooden shelves.

The closet has two doorways framed in white yet both are without doors. There’s no furniture inside the closets to hide behind. No bulletproof vests hanging from those little hooks. No trapdoors that drop the fourth graders into an underground tunnel system that mazes through the earth and branches into lite hallways that leads each child safely back to their bedrooms, leaving the booted intruder locked and loaded in an empty closet.

“Can you believe that Mr. Armstrong? Another school shooting.”

My daughter’s name is Haley. Cindy and I picked out the name months before she was born.  There was no debating. No coin flips. Our daughter would be forever Haley. And that was that.

Cindy was in labor with Haley for 16 hours. At one point the doctor peeked over Cindy’s knees and remarked how she refuses come out, “as if she’s hiding.”

As if, even before she was born, she was preparing for life in the American school system.

I cleared my throat, “Do you know where the shooting happened?”

“Somewhere in Maryland I think.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure. It was in Maryland.”

These are hard moments. Every time I learn about another school shooting I recoil and shake my head as if to say this is sad. This is so fucking sad.

What happened to the great American school experience that so many of us knew and enjoyed?

The one where you went to school and lived. The one where you pledge allegiance to a flag that you believed would protect you.

With all these dead children in the news, sometimes I feel guilty thinking about my daughter sitting at her desk, alive.

Right now she’s in math class–her favorite class. The teacher calls attention and spins and writes a multiplication problem on the board and challenges the class to solve it in under 30 seconds.

Haley flashes a smile. A smile that’s missing teeth but is unmistakably hers.

She tucks her blonde hair behind her ears and lets her pencil work the problem in her notebook.

The sun slants through the classroom windows on a fine American morning.

It’s spring outside. And a pair of eager yellow daffodils have pushed through the mulch outside her classroom and sway in the cool breeze.

And inside the classroom it’s warm and encouraging and my daughter is smiling. My daughter is alive and learning.

The way the great American school experience should be–always and forever.

Be well,

Jay