It was going to happen some day and so it happened today. There was a lockdown at my daughter’s school.
At 2:58 p.m., while I was teaching a graduate seminar—during a painful pause as I waited for an answer to what I had thought was a simple question about the relationship between language and national culture in the postcolony—I looked at my cell phone and saw the email.
Today a lockdown was instituted at our school at the direction of the Tucson Police Department, it said. They were responding to reports of threatening comments made by persons off campus. The comments did not specify our school by name, but did prompt TPD to secure schools in the area.
I read the email again. Why had it taken the school so long to notify us? Should I leave class and pick my daughter up early? I didn’t. I didn’t want to overreact. But I didn’t want to underreact either, so I rehearsed in my head the measured tone in which I would ask her about the lockdown, equal parts concern and equanimity.
I needn’t have worried. She brought it up herself once we got home.
The children had been at recess when they were abruptly ushered back into the building and into their classrooms. The teachers counted the 32 kindergarteners in my daughter’s too-small classroom and instructed them to get under the tables.
My daughter was under Orange Table with her friend Jacob, she told me. “Unfortunately, I was the last to get in the room,” she said, “because Jacob and me were distracted, playing Avengers.”
“But you got in,” I replied, as if to confirm that she’d made it to safety, wondering why that word, why it mattered that she’d been late to the lockdown. There was no gunman, in the end, and no real threat. There had been no slipping into the classroom in a panic, no fire ringing out, no smoke, no blood. It had made no difference whether she was first or last.
“It was creepy,” she said, “the lockdown.”
I thought that was her final word on the subject. Then, she started again. “Let’s keep talking, Mommy,” she said. “Let’s talk more about the lockdown. Did you have lockdowns, when you were a kid?”
In the moment, I didn’t remember, and I said no. But when I think about it now, I remember that we did. When I was in high school, there was a secret code: Nano Nagle, an eighteenth-century nun from County Cork, Ireland, would be called to the principal’s office over the intercom, and it would be our signal to lock the doors, dim the lights, get down and low and quiet. (As I write this, I find myself wondering if maybe this is still my old school’s security protocol that I am recklessly giving up to a potential gunman. You know, a gunman reading these words.)
We didn’t call it a “lockdown” back then. It had only been a few years since Columbine, so we weren’t desensitized yet. School shootings were still a horrific aberration. We worried about glorifying shooters like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and inspiring copycats with excessive coverage. We didn’t know then that there would be so many shootings they’d stop registering in the news. We thought it would likely never happen to us, not in our all-girls Catholic school, where trauma for some took the form of quiet abortions, predatory teachers, stroke-inducing diet pills. For others it was financial hardship, absent parents and partners, or drugs; for many, it was a bad grade, a petty cheating scandal, a broken friendship, a broken heart. It never did happen to us.
“We had earthquake drills,” I offered, a false equivalence. “We went under our desks, too, with our hands over our heads; in case the walls came crumbling down, we’d be safe there.”
“You can stand in a doorframe, too,” my husband chimed in, eager to deflect. “Doorframes are safe in earthquakes. We had tornado drills in Ohio. We went in the hallway and sat next to our lockers.”
“You hid in your lockers?” She is five, so she can imagine fitting into a locker. She probably could fit in a locker.
“No, we just sat next to them. Away from the glass windows, which might shatter.”
“Let’s talk more about the lockdown,” she insisted again. She wasn’t finished.
I asked if she knew the saying “better safe than sorry.” A discussion of yellow airplane masks ensued; I reminded her of the dozens of flights she has been on and the zero times the masks have fallen, the zero times she’s had to pull the elastic to tighten, the zero times she’s had to wait for the bag to inflate and reassure herself that even if it doesn’t inflate, the oxygen is still flowing.
“It’s like that,” I said. “You have the lockdown drill just in case, to be prepared, better safe than sorry, like earthquake drills, without earthquakes, and tornado drills, without tornados!”
But it wasn’t a drill.
“Where were the teachers?” she asked. (Why didn’t she know?)
“Under their desks,” I guessed. But she countered that their desks don’t have enough space underneath. “They must have been next to their desks,” I said, “keeping quiet, keeping you all safe.”
“The teachers were serious, but they weren’t quiet,” she said. “They were telling us to be quiet. Turquoise Table talked so much we lost all our warm fuzzies. We had to empty out the jar. But then we had a dance party. It was dark. The teachers told us we could lie down.”
Five-year-olds lying under their tables in the dark, having just come in from recess, at risk of losing their warm fuzzies. I don’t know what warm fuzzies are, but I know that little children on lockdown shouldn’t lose them, shouldn’t lose some earned reward from a better part of the day for talking to and comforting each other in a crisis. Even if there wasn’t a real crisis. (Isn’t this, the lockdown, the crisis?)
In my university classroom, three miles to the west of my daughter’s school on lockdown, we were trying and mostly failing to talk about Frantz Fanon’s and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s theories of language. We were silent. We didn’t have the answers. I have never been more sympathetic to the idea that language creates us, our modes of seeing, thinking, and experiencing the world, that language is, as Ngũgĩ writes, “mediating between me and my own self; between my own self and other selves; between me and nature . . . mediating in my very being.”
How do you say lockdown in Ngũgĩ’s Gikuyu? How do you say lockdown in any language but English? Can you? Do other people have a word for these drills, do they do this thing to themselves, do they ask their children to live in the space between warm fuzzies and possible death?
Do the children know it’s death? I wonder. Do the lockdowns make them tougher? Do they make them safer? Does it make it better that we all live there now, on the edge of the cliff, on the lip of the melting Himalayan glacier, in the middle of a lockdown drill whose lessons we daily fail to learn?
Two hours later, getting ready for bed, she’s still talking about the lockdown. “Let’s talk more about the lockdown,” she says. “I’m scared about the lockdown.” “Will you sleep with me?” she asks, she who has always slept alone. “When I sleep, I’ll just go back there.”
“You know, teachers get scared, too,” I say. I’m deflecting again. “But they keep all of you kids safe, that’s their job.”
“I don’t want that job,” she tells me, suddenly. My daughter, who has until now wanted to be like her parents—to teach math like her father or literature like her mother. She who wants a classroom with a chalkboard, students she can name, whose faces she knows, who will not threaten each other or themselves, who will survive their educations, who will, she imagines, learn and thrive.
“I don’t want to be a teacher,” she says now. “I’m going to be a paleontologist, in my dig site, with my fossils.”
She is decided, and she goes for a bath. She talks about superheroes. And tonight, this time, she goes to sleep, to dream, in her own bed. She will wake up and she will go back to school, to the new normal.
Let’s talk more about the lockdown.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan