People always ask me (usually in a hushed voice): What’s it like to work in a school with gangs? Do you feel safe? Would you ever consider leaving?
Truth is, it’s fine. They mostly leave me alone.
I work in a typical—although rather large—high school on Long Island. I’ve been teaching English to teenagers for almost 15 years. Despite public perception, the school is a great place to work. Yes, we have a lot of students—thousands of them. And yes, we have our share of issues: Kids skip class, some get caught smoking in the boys’ room and others join those gangs. But the sense of community here is strong. There’s the science teacher who works weekends prepping students for competition, the student organizing a charity fashion show after school and the community members running the spaghetti dinner for the old folks after the high school musical. That’s why the questions about gangs are more frustrating than anything else. Often, they aren’t asked out of concern, but more so because of curiosity stirred by fear-mongering and misinformation.
There are other questions people need to start asking instead. What’s it like to be a teacher in a country where school shootings are a thing you need to have practice drills for? Do you feel safe? Would you ever consider leaving the country?
Let me tell you what that’s like: it’s unnerving. On Feb. 15, the day after the Florida school shooting that killed 17 people, someone pulled a fire alarm in my building. A predictable albeit rare prank in a big school, but this time it was different. The room went quiet. Eighteen sets of eyes turned to me. I held their stares as I waited to hear the all-clear from the front office. Other students could be seen in the halls, following their conditioned protocols to exit the building. I told my kids to wait. Wait for the announcement. Wait for the signal that tells us it’s a drill. Wait until we know it’s safe.
My door stays closed and locked during the day. To be honest, it always did, but now I make it a point to double-check. I have to think about a plan of action in the event of a building-wide lockdown. Which filing cabinet would hold up best against an outside threat trying to come into my classroom? I know I checked twice, but is the door locked? Will I have time to barricade it with desks? Will the students remain calm and quiet, or will I have a student with emotional disabilities suffer from a panic attack? What about the windows in my first floor class? How can I protect my students from a threat that has breached the courtyard? Will this metal stapler hold up should I need to swing it? God forbid I’m caught in the hall…
This is my normal now.
I’m not saying the threat of gangs and the fear and violence that they feed on is not real. It is, and it’s scary. Too many young lives have been lost at their hands.
But to me, it doesn’t feel as alarming as the other threat. The one we aren’t supposed to speak about; the one that’s patched up with thoughts, prayers and condolences each time. Thoughts and prayers might help you find peace in the midst of this madness, but we need more than prayer. Arming teachers isn’t the answer. We are professionals, but armed professionals already have a role in our society, and it doesn’t include correcting grammar.
Speak up. Contact your local government officials. If you are praying for an answer, CC that prayer to someone in Washington, too. This can’t go on. This can’t be the new plateau of normalcy.
This rant is not over. This rant plays out in the back of my mind, all of the time. I’m a teacher. This is my normal now.