I was teaching in middle school in Des Moines, Iowa on the day the tragedy at Columbine High School occurred ten years ago. I was 35, engaged to be married that summer and had been teaching for a dozen years, working mainly with working class and at-risk kids.
By the spring of 1999, Des Moines had seen some of the worst gang violence in its history. At the middle school where I had worked previously, many of my students were involved in gangs. They were drug dealers who hid their weapons in the lockers at the beginning of the school day, wore bling – before it was called that – and flashed wads of cash that no fourteen or fifteen year old should have access to.
“Any time you need some extra cash, Miss Cox, just ask,” one of my newspaper students, Chris, informed me one afternoon, and he pulled a roll of paper bills bound by a rubber band out of the pocket of his baggy jeans. He smiled and nodded as I politely declined but thanked him for his generous offer.
Chris was a sweet kid, but a gangster who ran with a dangerous crowd. Despite that I was never afraid of him. His teachers in the Behavioral Disorder program marveled at how well we got on with each other. I was one of the few regular ed teachers whose class Chris attended regularly and without incident. His helpfulness and work ethic never surprised me. You could see the good kid underneath the bad circumstances that life had thrown him into.
But I taught my fair share of kids who were not simply products of their dicey environments. Children who suffered from mental illness who truly didn’t belong in a class with ordinary kids or in a school ill equipped to monitor them or protect others from them. And I went to work a few years afraid of a few of them and glad to see the backs of their heads come summertime, knowing that they would be someone else’s daily nightmare in the fall.
I think we locked the school doors for a few weeks after the Columbine killings. The district stepped up its half-hearted attempts at emergency procedures and lock-down drills. Every spring thereafter, we would get a little nervous and wait for the newspaper reports of another school shooting or thwarted attempt somewhere.
We joked that there wasn’t a student in the building we’d throw ourselves in front of a bullet for, war zone humor to hide the fear that one day we might very well be put in the position of choosing. Despite my promise to my husband-to-be that I would not sacrifice myself for someone else’s child, I would have. I would have protected any one of them. In fact, from then on I assessed my classrooms for possible defensive tactics and multiple escape routes. Every classroom I ever had thereafter in every school I worked, I knew what I could block the door with and how I would get my kids out if the occasion ever arose.
I taught for another seven years, and might still be teaching today if I hadn’t come to live in Canada, though I knew it was a vulnerable profession in terms of students and violence. I never let on to anyone but my husband if there was a kid I thought had the potential for a Columbine episode, and I made sure to point these kids out to counselors and administrators if they hadn’t already caught their attention – which was not often.
People scoff at teachers. We are considered people who opted out of real jobs for weekends off and summer vacations, but we are people who daily deal with a microcosm of society which includes kids like the two young men who murdered so many at Columbine ten years ago.
This is an original 50 Something Moms post by Ann Bibby of anniegirl1138 on April 20th.