The Longest Day

Today is Labor Day, and although I usually find theme related posts or events a little tacky, I thought it would be appropriate to give some sort of tribute to a group of workers in upstate New York. This particular group of people remains relatively unknown to me, seeing that I only spent about 2 months in their institution. Nevertheless, I feel as though I am indebted to each and every one of them. The teachers, administration, staff and faculty members at The Stissing Mountain Junior and Senior High School deserve a little recognition for their patience, wisdom and courage on November 10, 2009.

That was probably the longest day of my life. I have lived only a short time, and I am certain that there will be days that far exceed this one, but for now it remains the longest day I have ever lived through. Although the outcome of the situation in Pine Plains makes the entire incident seem negligible, it was certainly not; especially for the people involved….

November 10, 2009. 7:10 am.
Phew! I’m on time. I hate being late. I need to make a few copies, and then I need to get my butt upstairs to meet my supervisor. I race upstairs, say my hellos and welcome my students into class. I am ready to begin my lesson on….well, on something (It’s ironic that although I remember that day like it was yesterday, I have no idea what I was supposed to teach….). I watch as my supervisor takes notes, and I desperately try to shake the shakiness in my voice. I am just about at that point in my lesson where the “teacher jig” begins and there is an announcement on the intercom. “Lock Down. This is a lock down, please follow standard procedure.” Wait, what is the standard procedure? Why didn’t they teach that in Student Teaching Orientation? I look around the room and the students are getting up and drifting to the back of the classroom. My cooperating teacher is closing the blinds, turning out the lights and locking the classroom door. She is awesome. Thank goodness for her. So, since this is a drill it will prob last 10 min., and then I can get back to teaching. I can omit these two sections from my lesson and my students will still get the gist.

20 min. later
Wow, Period 1 is going to be significantly behind my other classes. That is annoying. I hope my supervisor does not write a bad reflection on my performance. I had no idea she would be stuck in a lock down drill…maybe this isn’t a drill?

It has to be a drill. If I think for too long or for too hard I begin to realize that it is probably not a drill. So I occupy myself by keeping my students calm. They are oblivious. One of them is trying to silently slide Chapstick over to the other. A few of them have their heads in their knees and look like they are about to pass out. A few of them are twittling their thumbs waiting for something, anything, to happen.

what was that noise? My eyes search the room and they lock with my cooperating teacher. Her look does not reassure me. I thought it sounded like a helicopter and the more I listen the more convinced I am that it was indeed a helicopter. Why do they need a helicopter?

My cooperating teacher heard the noise, so she moves all the students to an even less accessible portion of the classroom. We are all up on a stage that is about three steps higher than the rest of the classroom, but it goes back further so the students are safer. I sit myself on the stairs, in front of all the student, with a clear view of the door.

As if seeing the door was a good thing. What would I do if someone came to the door? Then my mind starts to race. I think about guns, men in black with masks, I think about Columbine and the teacher’s voice on the 911 tape. my voice has to be calm and I need to be sure of what is happening, I can’t sound like I am not in control. Wait, nothing has even happened yet. My back stiffens, my ears are pricked; I feel as though I can hear everything, and yet I hear nothing.

I jump…someone is running down the hallway yelling, “Everybody stay in your classroom! Do not leave your classroom!” Their shoes are making terrifying noises in the hallway. Are they on our side? They were holding guns. There are guns involved; this is really not a drill I look to my right and one student is praying. The only thing I can think about is Columbine. I have NO IDEA what is happening.

If I had known, then maybe I could have waited patiently for the help that was on its way. Since I did not know anything, I was forced to wait in agony. I listened to every sound in case it was a gun, a person, an anything. My cooperating teacher was on her cell phone texting (that’s right, she had been teaching for 30 years, and she was texting….they call her “lightning thumbs.”) trying to see if she could gather some semblance of information. Nothing. The phone lines were jammed.

Then we started to get pieces of information, but none of it was credible. I was able to text Jon, but he couldn’t tell me anything. I felt bad for him. He was at work watching the news knowing that I was in that school building but unable to reach me. Yet, he probably knew the outcome of the situation before I was even out of the building.

2 hours later

My butt hurt. My back hurt. I was hungry. I really had to pee. I was not convinced we were safe, but nothing more had happened so my body relaxed.

Then a knock came to the door, my cooperating teacher answered and we were greeted by a SWAT team in full uniform with really big guns. They gave us instructions and escorted us across the field to the highway department garage. I must have counted and recounted the heads of my students a million times between the moment we left the classroom and the moment we reached the garage.

I thought the garage = safe. It was a kind of safe, but not the kind of safe where I felt that I could let down my guard. I was looking for familiar faces, and I was nervous when I didn’t see them. The tension among the student body was dangerously high. Students and teachers alike were hungry, irritable and nervous. Two fights broke out, and the police who were there to protect us from the outside enemy had to protect us from the worst enemy: fear and anxiety.

By this point in the day I had not ingested any type of nourishment since my yogurt and granola breakfast at 6:00 am. I had not been to the bathroom to rid myself of my morning coffee. I was still wearing my 4 inch high heels, and I had NO idea what the official story was. I had not been able to contact my family and I was concerned for the people that I could not find. What on earth had happened?

I began to gather news from other teachers. The principal had been held hostage by a former disgruntled student. The perp. had disassembled his gun, hid it under is jacket, walked in the front door of the school, asked to see the principal, went to the bathroom, reassembled his gun and threw our world into chaos.

3 hours later

The word was given to let the students back into the school so their parents could come and retrieve them. I waited until the last student left my room. Then we had a staff meeting. I remember sitting in that chair listening to the words of the principal but not hearing a thing. My eyes were glazed over. In that moment I began to realize what happened and what could have happened. The adrenaline was long gone and I was exhausted. I desperately wanted to see Jon. The meeting ended a little after 4 in the afternoon, but it felt like 2 in the morning. I got in my car and cried. I cried all the way home. When I got home, Jon hardly asked a question. He was simply glad to see me. I remember cuddling up on the couch with a glass of wine in my hand and my best friend beside me, thankful to be alive.

They can’t teach you that in college. What that is, I am not even sure, but I was glad it got me through.

I am indebted to the students of my Honors English 10 class who acted with such maturity in the face of such fear and anxiety.

The men and women of Stissing Mountain Junior and Senior High School kept every single student and teacher safe. I could not be more grateful to them for their strength and guts. Here’s to you SMHS.

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