Of Fire Drills and Lockdowns

Back when I was in elementary school, about a million years ago, I thought that fire drills were pretty cool.  Not only did they get us out of doing our work for a few minutes, but there was the whole process of the thing.  They were exciting!

I think it was the element of surprise that really got me.  One minute I’d be hunched over my purple math ditto, working through the steps of a long division problem, when suddenly I’d bolt upright upon hearing that jarring Clang! Clang! Clang!

“Alright, everyone grab your coat and line up at the front of the room!” the teacher would announce.  There’d be a mad scramble to tear parkas and hats off hooks.

We were really good at lining up.  After all, we had to do it every day to go to lunch and then again to be dismissed to the school buses.  Lining up was always by size place, with myself and a couple of other shorties leading the way while the two guys who had an early growth spurt and had already passed the six foot mark bringing up the rear.

Lines of students of all ages, from the tiny kindergarteners to the big sixth graders, would stream out of the doors onto the playground.  Each class would gather around its teacher on the blacktop to wait for the all-clear.  Meanwhile, my heart would race with excitement as the clanging continued to scream from the open doors.  But it usually wouldn’t be but a few minutes until the alarm was turned off and all of us were shooed back into the school.

The one type of fire drill that really annoyed me was the one that occurred on the school bus.  The driver would announce the drill and then walk around to the back of the bus and open the emergency exit.  An alarm would sound and we all had to jump off the back of the bus.  As a fat, uncoordinated kid, I had a lot of trouble executing that particular maneuver.  It looked so far down to jump.  And it would hurt my feet when I hit the pavement.  And I might land on my knees.  More than once, a sympathetic bus driver would reach up and lift me down.  God bless them and their hernias!  I hope they had good chiropractors and excellent health coverage.

It never occurred to me that there could actually be a fire or any type of emergency in the school.  We all knew it was just a drill and we enjoyed the excuse to waste some time.

My parents, who grew up during the Second World War, tell stories about enduring air raid drills in elementary school.  All the kids knew how to “duck and cover,” cowering under their desks until the air raid sirens stopped their frightening bellow.

Air raid drills back in the forties were entirely different than the relatively benign fire drills of my own childhood.  With an air raid drill, you never knew if it was for real or not.  My grandfather was an air raid warden who enforced the “lights out” rules at night.  The Japs could try to get us at any time, just like they did in Pearl Harbor.  Even in the sixties, when I started school, the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present and there were therefore yellow air raid shelter signs attached to the outside of schools and many apartment buildings in my native New York City.

In my junior high and high school years, however, we had to deal with a series of bomb threats.  One of the administrators would pull the fire alarm and a couple of thousand of us would roll out of every exit in waves. We’d cross the access road and wait up on the hillsides and athletic fields while the fire engines screamed onto the school grounds and cops with bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the halls, and checking out every classroom, nook and cranny.  This process typically took an hour or more.  It was exciting at first, particularly when a bomb threat caused us to have shortened school periods or to actually lose a couple of class periods entirely.

But then it would happen twice in one week and there’d be yet another bomb threat the next week, and it started to get old.  If it were mid-winter, they wouldn’t pull the fire alarm; it might be below zero and there was no time for everyone to go to their lockers to retrieve their coats.  Instead, one of the assistant principals would make an announcement over the public address system that we were all to proceed to the gym immediately.  It was quite a sight when everyone in the entire school, adults and kids alike, was packed cheek to jowl into the bleachers.

The rumors flew as to why this was happening.  The general consensus was that one or more students were responsible.  Kids were calling in bomb threats from the pay phone, or they didn’t come to school that day and called them in from at home.  (Imagine what could happen today with smart phones!)  We never found out what was going on, but we all knew that the Vietnam War was raging and that there was a certain contingent of the student body who believed that any form of disruption was right and proper under the circumstances.

Today things are different.  The air raid drills of the war years and the bomb threats endured by my fellow baby boomers are long gone.  There is the occasional fire drill, of course, to comply with the law.  But what today’s kids have to put up with is the school lockdown.

In the wake of Columbine and Sandy Hook, the danger these days is not from bombs raining down from the sky or thrown into the cafeteria by war protestors.  No, today we have to worry about the kid who comes to school with a gun or the outsider who breaks into the building, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and murderous intent.

So our children have become accustomed to the teacher locking the door and turning out all the lights while everyone hides as best they can, packed into corners and closets.  It might be nothing or it might be disaster.  One never knows.  Everyone is supposed to be quiet and huddle together.  Kids desiring to send panicked text messages are warned that the light from a cell phone could give them away to a killer.

An article published in the New York Times this week cites the negative psychological effects that school lockdowns have on children.  Kids as young as five and six years old have nightmares about bad men with guns attacking their schools.  At home, brothers and sisters play “lockdown” by hiding or running to the basement at a prearranged signal.

“Some parents wonder whether the trend has laid a backdrop of fear and paranoia across their children’s education,” states the Times article. When I first viewed the article, it was just beginning to receive comments.  Upon my second reading, it had logged 194 of them.

I noticed that the comments were full of the usual indictments of the Second Amendment, pleas for gun control and counterarguments from gun enthusiasts.  Some parents wrote of the futility of huddling in corners and closets, citing the Sandy Hook murders as a product of such “massing.”  Others wrote of the inevitable scarring that results when children are required to exit their schools with their hands on their heads to show that they have no weapons.

Another commenter remarked that children “understand that the fabric of society has worn thin when it comes to school shootings, and that they are on the front lines.”

In other words, today’s schoolchildren understand that they may be in danger at any moment and that neither teachers nor parents can protect them.  Their grandparents’ air raid drills and their parents’ bomb threats are long ago events that may as well be described in history books.  Even the “drop and roll” maneuver and training in the use of fire extinguishers have become quaint anachronisms in the era of mass shootings.

In the age of the lockdown, it is a wonder that children are able to concentrate on their studies long enough to learn anything.  Instead of school being a nurturing, comforting environment, it has become a scary place where the real creeps into their nightmares and their nightmares become real.

 

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