My wife and I didn’t hear the gunshots.
We were picking Penny up from school when suddenly people were running back inside. What’s happening? Should we go? To the car? Inside? Is there danger? Get the kids!
Penny and Simon were walking toward the car, against the wave of parents, students and teachers, like two tiny salmon swimming upstream, without a care in the world. We were soon among the last people still outside. Penny! Simon! Over here! Stay right next to us.
“MOVE NOW!” a teacher shouted. “Someone is shooting. Get in the building NOW!”
Allie is normally at work for pickup, but was excited to get Penny on this special occasion. She took a half day off because it was Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year. This is not, however, the kind of bang she had hoped to start the year off with. Instead, it was a depressing reminder that we live in a world where we are happy our child’s school has a plan to protect her and her classmates from an armed assailant.
Let me back up and be clear, this was not a “school shooting” incident. The gun fire was outside the school, which is why we were being corralled back inside for a lockdown. From the get-go, it was apparent that whatever this was, it had nothing to do with any of the students, parents or faculty. Directly across the street from the school is a housing project littered with empty beer cans and broken bottles. Maybe that’s where the violence started. Maybe whoever was being shot at would seek refuge in the school and the gunman would follow. We had no idea and that’s what was scary. We’ve all seen it on the news: “stray bullet hits innocent victim.” We live in Jersey City and gun violence, while certainly not an everyday occurrence, is not uncommon.
School lockdown begins
We were ushered into a classroom with 20 or so students and another parent and her child. There were two teachers with us. They started the lockdown procedures: pulling down the shades and blacking out the window on the classroom door, though I’m not sure if it was locked. One of the teachers vigilantly watched the door, while the other teacher patrolled the window. If someone wanted to force their way in, I imagine they could have done so. But still the teachers stood guard. They’d practiced this.
Students and parents alike were told to sit against a wall and be as quiet as possible. The room was meant to seem empty. It was darker than a classroom should be and quieter. It was very quiet until Simon, who is two and a half and curious, wanted to know what was going on.
He asked LOUDLY and REPEATEDLY.
There was a petrified student hiding under a desk whose eyes pleaded with me to shut that kid the fuck up. Wanting to be of some help, anyway, I found a few scraps of paper and crayons for my kids to entertain themselves. They colored and the room was virtually silent once more. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do anything else, but at least I could do that.
Some time passed. Everyone started breathing again. The teacher guarding the door told us that as soon as she got the signal, we’d all be able to leave. The announcement came over the P.A. system a minute or two later.
Looking back at the lockdown, nothing really happened. It turns out the incident occurred a couple blocks away and we were never in danger. At the time, however, the situation was genuinely frightening. It offered a rare glimpse into every parent’s worst nightmare: something horrifying happening to your scared child in a place where you cannot possibly protect or comfort her, because you’re not there. Even as the stay-at-home parent, I am not with Penny for at least eight hours a day, five days a week.
One of the reasons I like this school is because of its security. That sounds tragic, I know. There are a ton of other reasons, too. Most of them are actually related to my daughter’s education. But when we were looking at kindergartens, I appreciated that everyone had to be buzzed into the school and walk past a security guard. I don’t want anyone in the school that doesn’t belong there. After seeing the security plan carried out, I feel even better. I trust Penny’s school and I know that when she’s not with me she’s in good hands.
Also, I feel sad. Knowing something bad could happen is different than knowing it really could happen.
On the ride home, when Allie and I were breathing deep sighs of relief we talked to Penny about the experience. She told us that she understood someone was shooting a gun outside the school, though she didn’t know why.
“Didn’t they know kids could get hurt!?” she asked, naively not understanding the un-understandable.