If life is a collection of indelible moments, let me tell you about the time someone knocked my ink well across the room.
It was the year 2000, and I was a veteran teacher that thought he had seen it all. I taught in a pretty tough school. By the time the school shooting happened, I had already been stabbed in the leg and had a set of broken ribs from breaking up fights. . .and I taught at a middle school. Truth be told, I loved teaching in that environment. The challenge was exhilarating.
From the first day I knew I was in the right place when the principal, a Vietnam veteran, upon receiving a death threat during the first week of school, called for an impromptu school assembly in the school parking lot upon dismissal. As the staff and students filed out the doors, a scurry of motion caught my eye as I watched my suit clad boss scale a big yellow school bus like he was a spider monkey. He fixed the crowd with a gaze that would have did Henry V proud and bellowed from the megaphone he was clutching in his fist that the coward that put the death threat in his mail slot should come front and center and deliver on their promise.
No one stirred. I don’t think anyone even took a breath.
He then proceeded to strip off his shirt, revealing a whipcord body of sinew and scars. “I was a tunnel rat in Vietnam. If you children think I would ever let a teenager dictate the quality of my day you are severely mistaken. You kids go home now, kiss your mamma goodnight and do some hard thinking before your head hits the pillow about wether or not you ever want to poke this bear again. Make no mistake, this is now my school. It will be Beirut no longer. Get on the busses and go home. Staff, meet me in library in ten minutes.” Captain Bill, understood command and control. He was the kind of boss I would run through a wall for. As a staff we did run through walls, and slowly but surely, we turned the soul on that building.
I had experienced a great deal of success and had garnered a few accolades, as did many of the other teachers that could respond to his leadership style. Bill VanSant taught me much in the years we worked together. Sadly, some of our approach was questioned locally, even as we were gaining regional notoriety among our profession for our innovative programs. It was almost as if the local school board was afraid of the quick success we were having. It really didn’t matter to me. I was never one to rest on my laurels. Besides, the reward I lived for was making light bulbs flash on in my students’ minds when they learned something new about life, even if it wasn’t covered on the standardized tests that were already driving educational decisions in the eighties and nineties. As a staff we had completely transformed a previous failing school plagued by open gang violence, a lack of funding and community support, and not to mention good old student apathy.
The staff had turned over during the roughest years and we actually made several leaps as fresh educational leaders brought in new approaches. One of those teachers became my new boss. That was a good thing because he was a close friend and we had taught and coached together before he was promoted to principal. Sadly, Captain Bill, decided he no longer had the stomach for dealing with the political circus of being an educational administrator and shocked everyone when he announced he wanted to return to his passion: teaching life skills math to marginalized kids. He confided in me privately that he was astonished to find something even more FUBAR than the Army: school administration.
“They want us to teach algebra and trigonometry to street kids, and I would be happy if they could balance a checking account and avoid being taken advantage of by Pay Day Loan and Rent To Own companies. Ken, I miss the classroom and I found a district that wants a good math teacher. Whatever you do, don’t let them ever trick you into leaving your classroom.” I was sad to see him go. We were given a wallflower for his replacement to finish the year, but it didn’t matter, we had momentum. Bill had taken us as far as he could and it was time for a new leader to advance us further than Bill was going to be able to. Gene Blalock would become that man.
It was an exciting time. I was blessed once again to work for a man of incredible skill, and more important integrity. In fact, Dr. Eugene Blalock, as he is now known, would go on to be the superintendent of a neighboring district, and win many awards, but first he had a job to do here at this building. He spent the summer organizing his vision and cultivated his core staff over the summer to become as excited as he was for his inaugural year and we spent much of those “off” months seeking further training. It was early September, the crisp Autumn air matched our vigor. We had hit the ground running. Nothing could stop the roll we were on.
Those ideas bubbled in my head as I sat at my desk listening to the counselor explain to my students some of the new exciting programs we had for them that year. I scanned the room, keeping the kids polite and engaged as she outlined the highlights. “. . .and if you are ever having a rough day, you can arrange to meet with me by. . .”
The students giggled thinking my buddy, the science teacher across the hall, had really cool experiments going on. I knew differently. I knew that sound from my own troubled days as a younger man. Someone had just fired a weapon, in close proximity.
I took a deep breath, made eye contact with the counselor, and we both guided them to crouch down in the safest corner of the room, behind solid cinder block. I gently explained what was probably happening and what I was going to do about it. I locked them in the classroom with the counselor and darkened the room, making it look empty from the hallway.
It didn’t take long to ascertain the situation. Movement to my right as I finished locking the heavy door caught my attention. As I whirled around I saw students crawling quickly on their bellies from the classroom next to mine. I made my way past the lockers that spanned the two rooms. Halfway there, I found a student curled into the fetal position. I crouched down to check for injuries, but could find none. She had a pulse, but her eyes were vacant. She was in catatonic shock. I wavered on what to do until I saw my offensive tackle making a beeline out the door where the chaos was.
I motioned him to me.
His eyes were wide. “Coach, Kevin has gone fucking crazy. He’s waving the gun around and shooting. . .”
“Look at me.”
His face sharpened like we were in a huddle calling a play. I pointed down to the puddle of a girl between us. “Take her downstairs and tell Mr. Blalock that we. . .”
“Blalocks’ not here coach, neither is Sgt. Webb.”
As usual, the students seemed to know more about our operational staffing situation than anyone. He went on to explain that Coach B. was the TIC that day and that he had seen Mr. Blalock and our school resource officer leave together during home room. I would later learn, and I kid you not, they had been pulled off campus for a school safety meeting.
“Okay, Plan B then. Take her downstairs, find Coach B. and tell him: OWL THREE.”
Luckily, Coach B. and I had not only taught and coached together, we happened to take a seminar that summer on school safety procedure and we had actually cobbled together an evacuation plan for this very contingency. Of course, we had also joked that we would never need it at my school; only middle-class white kids shot up schools. There were maybe ten white kids in that entire building, and one them was the wide-eyed tackle waiting for me to call the play of my lifetime. We were probably more likely to use the Fallen Aircraft Drill on page 12 of our master emergency plan.
As it turns out, we would indeed use that drill also. . .in September of 2001. Maybe you remember that morning differently, but when airliners began falling out of the sky and hitting buildings, I was in a classroom with 26 students watching it live and no one had answers, so the call did come across the intercom to go to page 12 of the booklet. If you can’t keep a sense of humor in the face of impossible tragedy, you will go crazy. I hope some of my friends now understand my unusual hyper-vigilance when comes to safety procedures. I’ve seen them in use. . .too often for one lifetime.
OWL THREE was code for “active shooter in the building” and identified the upper floor as the danger zone and the safest evacuation routes were to the northwest, through the gymnasium and onto the football field. My large offensive lineman, he’d later go on to play Division 1 ball, scooped the girl up and onto his shoulders like she was little more than a pillow and trotted off to the stairwell to find Coach B.
I then stood, walked to the door that was now ajar and tried to peer into the classroom, not really fooling my self that the tin lockers and plasterboard offered much in the way of protection. What I saw there will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. In fact, I am up, in the middle of the night from a nightmare, one of the nastier versions, trying to write this down as catharsis, to chase some slumber demons away. Thank you for sticking with me so far on this long tale.
The look of helpless and abject horror on the face of the math teacher is permanently seered in my brain. She looked look me a puppet with her limbs outstretched in pure panic, but her knees were shaking and suspected that whatever ever strings still held her together were about to snap. Even worse was the sheer terror of the children still stuck in the room cowering behind flimsy desks. Then my eyes saw Kevin. He was gesturing wildly, a smoking gun in one of his hands.
That summer, by the Grace of God, I had learned a technique called paradoxical response. Looking back, I have no doubt in His plan in all of this. Essentially, this technique is pure craziness. It is so illogical that it works. It involves acting as if nothing is wrong and that you could not imagine being anywhere else, having any more fun than what you are about to do. It is designed to create a cognitive disconnect in an agitated person, prompting them to deescalate. I took a deep breath, smiled unnaturally wide, stepped up to the door and delivered a friendly knock and in pleasant cheery voice, “Hey Kevin, is it a beautiful day today, or what?” I slapped my hands together playfully, motioned to the teacher and students to scoot behind me and out the door, “Hey, I have a great idea. How about Ms. Lay and the kids head out of here real quick and you and I sit down here and have a chat?”
He was completely baffled. He smiled weakly and nodded his head a few times unsure what he had just agreed to, but they were out the door and down the hall before he understood what had happened.
I then pulled out a chair and sat down, trying to appear as uninterested in much of anything, let alone the tendrils of blue smoke drifting lazily upward and out the two bullet holes he had put in the ceiling of the classroom.
“Mind if I sit down?” I said angling into the room sideways to both make my large frame a bit less intimidating and also dropping one arm along the side of my body facing him giving him less of a target to hit and putting more bone and flesh between any of his bullets and my vital organs. Of course even standing sideways, I am a bigger target than an average human being.
He nodded and seemed to at least breath a bit slower.
“So how’s your day going? Mine was awesome until, well. . .”
I risked a quick nod and glance at the shiny thing in his hands. It kept catching the light of the room as he kept moving it about in the air. It was about then that the acrid gunsmoke filled my nose. I could feel the fear start to rise from my. . .use your imagination. The smell made it real, even as I was hypnotized by the two shafts of sunlight coming through the roof of the school where Kevin had fired his weapon. Before that ugly, oily smell hit my nose and brought me back to the moment, I remembered thinking it was pretty the way those two shafts turned blue wherever the gun smoke danced in and out of the light.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Okay, but. . .” I gave him a weak smile and again nodded at the nickel-plated .380.
I was under no illusions that humor was going to work here. I’d love to tell you that I had some magical rapport with this kid. I had nothing. Kevin was a tough kid to love, let alone like. He was a bully and a thug. He was not your stereotypical school shooter. He was one of my students, when he was at school, but we had more of a quiet understanding than any traditional teacher student relationship: I didn’t hassle him unduly and he didn’t disrupt my class and on occasion he actually did some of his classwork. That isn’t rapport.
I didn’t know what to do next other than to sit and see if he wanted to talk. I took note of where he was standing in relationship to the long row of windows that backed to a small wooded area on the campus. . .the most likely perch for a S.W.A.T. sniper. I took a chair on the far side away from the windows.
“I’m not going to hurt anyone. I just want to talk to my brother.”
That was news to me. I didn’t know he had a brother. In fact, had I known that I might have seen some of this coming. It turns out his brother had a different last name. It was a name we all would have recognized as it had been all over the nightly news that week. You see, Kevin’s older brother from another father was wanted in connection to a fatal car jacking and shooting in downtown Cincinnati that week. His brother and some other young men had not only victimized several people during a night of riotous behavior, they had shot and killed the college student they had carjacking and left the body in the burning car at an abandoned building in the warehouse district when they were done with it. It was a horrific crime that shocked most of the city. . .for that news cycle.
Kevin then proceeded to tell me about the weekend he had just been through. Apparently his parents had kicked him out of the home when the police showed up, not for his fugitive brother, but for him for some unrelated complaints of vandalism and breaking and entering. “You ain’t stayin’ here no more if you going to be like your no good brother,” he was told as they banished him from the house. He then recounted his weekend of running the streets and staying at friends. Apparently he did at some point hook up with his brother during the weekend, because he claimed the that is where he came into possession of the .380 he had just fired twice in a classroom. He told me his brother had given it to him to “hide.”
As he told me this, I stared at the nickel plated weapon in his hand and wondered just how many people that gun had hurt.
I had no idea if any of his tale is true. I had already seen this kid prove to be a sociopathic liar. Frankly, I was surprised he was in our school because the previous year he had purposely set a fire in one of bathrooms so that he and his friends could jump a student from a rival clique. I am not afraid to admit that I had no capacity for mercy or compassion for him. I had been one of the more vocal staff members about removing him permanently for the safety of all the other students. He was already a manchild in a middle school. We were inviting a problem. I really do hate being right sometimes, especially when it gets you stuck in a room with an armed teenager.
TO BE CONTINUED
TO BE CONTINUED