What do you remember most about grade school?
My fond memories include field trips, birthday cupcakes, Treasure Island, and, of course, recess. But I asked what you remember most. Because if you’re reading this, you probably spent years of your childhood in the classroom. And the memory that suffuses my school days is boredom.
I’m still in the classroom, but now I’m up front. I’m in my 13th year of teaching, and I’ve taught over a thousand students. And I’ve seen boredom on over a thousand faces. Some look like I imagine I did, with expressions of placid compliance. Others have a lower tolerance for tedium; their reactions tend to the more expressive. Teaching is largely the business of getting a bunch of kids to do something when they’d rather be doing something else. There’s a reason children run out of school at dismissal.
A couple of weeks ago, however, my classroom was filled with interest, excitement, and even delight. About 20 minutes into second period, the principal broadcast the coded message to run the lockdown drill for an intruder. I instructed everyone to move desks toward the wall and tip them to serve as shields. I’d been dreading this drill, expecting chaos, or at least alarm. However, the kids performed not only excellently, but cheerfully, which took me aback. Then I realized they were reacting with the same joy I’d felt whenever I heard the fire bell. It’s that wonderful reminder that boredom’s dominion isn’t unchallenged in school: teachers will call in sick, snow can fall on Sunday night, and the law mandates fire drills.
My students and I are fortunate to be in a school whose primary concern is our safety. And we’re fortunate – if that is the word – to know how to run lockdown drills. But my 13th year is indeed unlucky. It’s the first I’ve ever had to teach children how not to get shot. It’s the first I’ve told kids to be still because movement and noise attract attention, and the first I’ve checked to make sure they’ve concealed themselves as best they could. And as I went from desk to desk, I saw what I don’t always remember to see 20 minutes into second period: beautiful children, full of life and promise.
My mom and her classmates used to hide under their desks from the Russians. Eventually it was understood that desks were no match for nuclear weapons. I’ve just taught a roomful of kids – perhaps yours; certainly ours – to hide from Americans. My disbelief is exceeded only by my fear that, as with the old duck and cover drills, we too will realize such measures are futile. Then what?
I tell my students I’ll only ever raise my voice if it’s an emergency. I’m afraid, however, I can’t shout loud enough for the gun “debate.” But an old teacher trick is to lower your voice when you want to be heard. And so now I whisper to you: we are deciding that our children need to learn to avoid murder in the classroom.
Is that what they do in countries with the best schools? Is that what a civilized nation does? Maybe David Letterman – of all people – put it best when he asked, “Honestly? That’s really life now? That’s what it’s going to be?”
Can’t we decide something else?
I hope my teaching career is filled with fond memories. But what I hope most is that our children remember the worst threat they faced in my classroom was boredom.