Things Best Left Unsaid

Circumstances had kept me away from my blog.  Circumstances had me searching through the garage for Christmas decorations.  In the end, circumstances led me to a box of the wife’s books that had followed her from her old elementary school.

Staring back at me was this vintage school edition:

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Me being me, naturally, this type of serendipity demanded that I post this to Facebook.  On a slow Sunday, I wanted to get the requisite immature giggles and silly innuendos from my friends.  After all this was a book written in 1959, using acceptable language of the time, and it would definitely generate the proper immaturity.

So I did.

And “Likes” I got.

I posted more from the book:

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This book sounded like something I could milk for laughs throughout the afternoon and evening.

But then I started to flip through the pages of the book:

“This story takes place in 1781 in Newtown, Connecticut.  The main part of the story is true though Adam and his family are imaginary.  The golden cock is still on a steeple of a church in Newtown…”

Newtown.

And to find this book during this particular week, this particular anniversary…

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I was getting laughs out of what is the symbol of the city of Newtown.

While I don’t shame very easily, I felt it now.  Nice timing, huh?

For someone who tries to take pride in his knowledge of American history, having spent the bulk of his teaching career teaching 5th graders about the nation’s foundation, this was a story I had never known:  that of Newtown’s small but critical role in the denouement of the American War for Independence:

By 1781 the war was about to wind down although it may not have looked that way at the time. The French, having seen that the Americans could actually hold off a British army in Battle and always looking for a way to annoy the British, committed four regiments of troops to aid George Washington.

These troops under the command of the Compt d’Rochambeau, landed in Newport RI, in 1780 and languished there until Washington devised a use for them against the British in New York at the beginning of the fighting season a year later.

The problem was getting the French force from Rhode Island to his headquarters, then in the Hudson Highlands. The solution was to march them across the middle of Connecticut where they were away from the coast and thus not subject to British attack.

Marching across the middle of the state brought them into Newtown, and it was here that they planned to make their 10th camp and rest for a couple of days before joining Washington.

On June 28th, the first of the four regiments consisting of 1,000 men arrived in Newtown and camped on Church Hill Road about where St. Rose Church is today. For protection, they placed their artillery park on top of Castle Hill where it commanded the southern approach against the possibility of approaching British soldiers.

The next day the second regiment of 1,000 troops marched in and also camped on Church Hill Road across from the entrance to Walnut Tree Hill Road. The third division arriving on June 30th, set out their camp on the plain alongside the Pootatuck River in Sandy Hook.

Even before the fourth regiment could arrive, Washington received word that the French fleet was in a position to bottle Lord Cornwallis in the Chesapeake Bay and so a fast messenger was sent to have Rochembeau hasten his march to New York. 

The poor fourth regiment had just arrived in Newtown where they were scheduled to stay and rest for two days when they were told they had to move out immediately.

And so on July 1st, the French in their splendid white uniforms and blaring French martial music, marched out of Newtown to join the American forces as they headed to the resounding victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown that effectively ended the war.

As it goes, this book, that I had been so determined to mock, was mocking me right back, in its own way.

The story itself is, in my opinion, ordinary, as children’s historical literature goes:  When French troops under General Rochambeau camp near the young boy’s town in Connecticut, the boy makes the acquaintance of a young French soldier and must face up to a questionable relationship with a friend whose father is a Tory.  The church’s weathervane, the eponymous “cock” of the story, makes it appearance in the story by appearing to Adam in a dream in the midst of his ambivalence towards his friend living so close to the French encampment.  In all seriousness, being what it is, the rooster gives Adam no real help in trying to sort through his dilemma.

In real life, the rooster weathervane still sits upon the steeple of the Newtown Congregational Meeting House.

If not for the events of a year ago today in Newtown, that weathervane—and the inevitable sophomoric humor that it derives for people like me—should have been the extent of Newtown’s notoriety.

But it’s not.

Circumstances had taken care of that detail.

Meanwhile, on Board the Kobayashi Maru

My efforts to win at the no-win scenario

“War is over, we don’t need your help.  America is making war on itself…” — Bono, during a U2 performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky“, Boston 2001

duckandcover

I am old enough to remember how “Duck-and-Cover” was supposed to protect my elementary school classmates and I from a Soviet nuclear attack.

Now my students are old enough to “Duck and Cover” to protect themselves from an American attacking their school…

From today’s New York Times Opinionator, Sara Mosle:

 …because every few months, my daughter’s school, like others across the country, conducts a “lockdown” drill to prepare for a school shooting. A coded message comes over the loudspeaker indicating that there’s an intruder, most likely armed and dangerous, in the building. My job as a teacher, now familiar to many Americans thanks to the procedures rehearsed and followed by the heroic educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is to rush the door, lock it, turn off the lights (to create the illusion of an empty classroom) and corral my students into a corner. There, out of sight, we practice huddling quietly as we would if an armed intruder were trying to shoot us through a doorway or window.

This past Wednesday, as it was apparently at other elementary schools in the local area, including my own daughter’s school, it was “Lockdown” day.

On Tuesday, my grade level team met for the first time since the Newtown shootings.  Lockdown procedures, rather than our IB curriculum, become the topic of concern.  As often happens with epic-level disasters or circumstances, they only become a topic of importance after they happen, rather than before.  As a new teacher at this school, I am admittedly unfamiliar with the procedures, and I need help in learning what’s appropriate at this school site.  At my old school, with its stand-alone classroom, my choices were self-explanatory with respect to a Lockdown.  (Of course, my final 2 years there were spent in a trailer that could have been at home after Hurricane Katrina.  Given its thin walls, and its isolated position on the outskirts of the campus, I could see little protection that it might have provided my students.)  But at my new school, with its remants of 1970s pod design, the classrooms open up to a central community area, and the school is split between the upper and primary grade areas, as well as a pod for the administration and the kindergarteners.  We are effectively cut off from each other in the event of some sort of emergency.

Says a colleague, K., who has the room next to mine, and whose classroom overlooks the parking lot and is the most exposed, “I think they were on acid when they designed the school.”

My reply, “Well, it was the ’70s.”

Still, she is worried about the ability to see into her classroom during a lockdown, even with the lights turned off.  At my team meeting the day before, I expressed the same worry, as my teammates and I discussed the timeline of the Newtown shootings, wondering if the various offices and storage rooms scattered along the periphery of the classroom pods were accessible to us with our keys, and therefore could be locked.  Reflecting up on how students, teachers, and staff, were able to find hiding places at Sandy Hook Elementary in such smaller rooms, we reach a grade level agreement to move our kids into the storage rooms and offices in the event of a lockdown.  I bring up the idea that we need to “buy” time in the event of such a situation, that the longer it would take for students to be “found”, the better chance local law enforcement would have to get to the school to intervene.

My colleagues’ keys work the doors to the storage room which sits between them.  Later on, I am reassured to find that my key will open the RSP room immediately next to my classroom.  Unfortunately, we are only 3 classrooms of 75 students, as well as ourselves, there is still a need to find such an evacuation spot for the SDC class, 2 4th grade classrooms, and 3 6th grades.  Given that this lockdown is meant to find out how we stand with respect to emergency procedures though, we set aside our initial concerns about trying to find places for everyone, until we know it works for our own classroom of kids.

So on Wednesday morning, before my students arrive, I spend a few moments with my 4th grade colleagues, who have the rooms closest to me, to find out what they’re planning on doing.  Both pretty much agree that there’s little they plan on doing beyond “ducking and covering”, because there’s not many places they can move towards.  I point out that with the lights out and quiet children, from the outside, the temporary wall between our classrooms does provide some cover when viewed from the outside.  K., who has that classroom closest to the school parking lot, and with 2 windows that can be used to enter the room, realizes there’s a corner where she can move her kids to hide them from anyone  looking in.  I suggest that later, after we’re done, we try to see if curtains are an option.  My 5th grade colleagues both have curtains on their room themselves, while I am using some posters.  Still, at this point, I move outside myself, switch off the classoom lights and try to see what it might look like from the outside looking in.  There are areas where children sit where enough ambient light, even on an overcast morning, allows someone to see in even with the lights out.  I make the decision to have that student move into the far corner during “duck and cover”.

Nevertheless, I ask myself if “Duck and Cover” would truly be that effective if a potential shooter choose to enter the school through my door or window.  Rather than immediately question that, I decide it best to follow directions during this drill, in order to question the choice later on, if necessary.  My aide comes in, at this point, and I brief him about the procedures we will follow.

When I go to pick up the students, as they try to settle in, I immediately cut off the usual insouciance, in order to explain the lockdown procedures the class will follow when it starts.  I move from the known to unknown.  Most of these kids have matriculated only through this elementary school, but it being the east side of my school district, rather than the west side, I wonder if these kids even know what a lockdown was.

“How many of you have been through a lockdown drill at this school?”

None raise their hands.  I find out later that lockdowns have been held in the past, but these kids apparently don’t remember it.

“How many even know what a lockdown is?”

My girl from Norwalk, a boy from Bell Gardens and another from Hawaiian Gardens, all raise their hand.  The other kids, local area lifers, are still silent.  I explain the lockdown and what it usually means.  Normally, in the area, it’s because the local sheriff deputies are out searching for a suspect in a local crime.  We can still function normally, more or less, in such a situation.  But today is more about the events in Connecticut.  While I have avoided getting specific about details about Sandy Hook, I do get specific now, not to scare the kids, per se, but to explain to them the “why” of what we will do.  I work very hard at trying to remain calm, and my usual casual humor is replaced by a more serious tone.  I want this to go well.   The principal then comes on over the intercom and reiterates a great deal of what I had already told the kids.  I am hoping that the kids will get the message to treat this with some measure of seriousness.

When the lockdown finally happens, I actually find my hands shaking as I deliver the instruction to get under the desks, and I head over and turn out the lights.  So far so good, but slowly, order starts to break down.  One kids bangs his head accidentally on one of the desk legs.  Others giggle, as they are wont to do during earthquake drills, without heeding my request for as much quiet as they can muster.

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. — Blaise Pascal

I strive to do my best to not raise my voice as move to the next step, getting the kids into the RSP office.  I try to walk around the room in those areas where it is darkest, and I ask the kids to start to crawl, in the dark into the RSP room.  Still, several of my students are determined that they have to provide a vocal soundtrack to the drill.  My kids move quickly enough to crawl into the RSP office, and I make a mental note about a couple of my students who backed out into the area of the room still lit from outside light, to remind them to move forward under the desk to crawl rather than backwards.

But my aide is getting frustrated as he positions himself at the RSP office door to help guide the student inside.  Unlike myself, he is naturally softspoken, but I can see him getting frustrated by the increasing noise level coming out of the RSP office.  My goal was try to hide the kids in the office, but with their inability to pipe down, they’ve done nothing but make themselves even more conspicuous.  It is all I can do to not throw propriety to the wind and not yell at them to shut up.  At this point, the principal, moving through our building to check on statuses, comes by and quietly tries to hush the kids’ giggling and talking.  He leaves, my aide and I are dumbfounded when the talking and laughing continue, especially when I see one boy light up his watch because he has to see what the time was.

Mosle:

During these drills, my students are often visibly anxious because they’re afraid of guns and don’t and can’t know if the exercise is just a precaution. We behave as if the alarm were real because it could be real, and so we can become accustomed to remaining calm during a crisis. My students hug one another and exchange nervous glances as we crouch on the floor and I silently mouth words of comfort. Someone begins to whisper until another student hisses, “Shhhhhh,” so any gunman wouldn’t be able to hear us. Our principal goes around checking doors in the eerily quiet hallways to see if teachers have followed protocol, and when he jiggles our doorknob, several students start as if in a horror movie.

My students, for their part, are far from anxious, because there are enough who couldn’t process what “quietly” even means.

When the lockdown is over, the kids head back to their desks.  I should debrief, but at this point, I’m looking for seriously methaphorical blood.

I ask T. why he was looking at his watch.  He replies that he needed to know what time it was, clueless that he belongs to me until 2:15 pm anyway.

I ask D. why he thought the whole procedure was so funny.  All he can do is shrug his shoulders.

S. starts to complain that someone was touching his butt when he looked out the office window, even though there was no compelling reason to look out the window if the point was to hide.  My class cynic, G., sarcastically retorts that if S. doesn’t want his butt touched, he shouldn’t look out the office window.  (G.’s internalized the Cause-and-Effect lesson I taught earlier this year.)

I am frustrated.  My principal enters shortly afterwards and starts to ream the students out himself.  He is not happy.  I can see this stuff rolling downhill to me and I want to get out of the way, but can’t.  He makes it a point that not only could he hear my students from outside, he could tell where they were based on the amount of noise they were making.

“Perfect practice makes perfect execution”, he leaves them.

I ream them again, because they’ve gotten reamed by the principal.

Later, as we debrief the fiasco in the RSP office, my colleague rustles my jimmies by suggesting it was a classroom management issue.  I consider, for a moment, ritual suicide to save face.  I find my principal, who’s resumed his normal rounds, and apologize for my class’ behavior.  Inappropriate humor or not, I volunteer that my kids and I would be willing to distract a shooter in real life.  But still, with tensions being as it was, I don’t relish the idea that 1/3 of my students don’t fully comprehend the criticality of making themselves as inconspicuous as they possibly can, which includes putting a muzzle on their insatiable need to conduct a running commentary during a drill that’s meant to be done in near-total silence.

When the kids return from their enrichment classes, I try to tear a new one out of what’s left of them for having been called out by another teacher.  But I stop myself.  I point out the ultimate need for such an exercise.  The state has entrusted their safety to well-being to me, and my responsibility is to keep them in a safe setting to the fullest extent that I can.  And when they choose not to follow instructions, they put not just themselves at risk, but also their classmates, and the rest of the school.  I point out what I had shared with my grade level team the previous day, that the point of the drill was to see how long we could last in silent hiding. Sadly, that’s not what had gone down.

I then praise one of my boys, who is normally chatty, distracted, and moving constantly throughout the room, as probably the one kid who “got it”.  L. tells me that he treated the exercise like a game of “Soldier” (I call it “Army Guy”, but most boys seem to gravitate to it at some point in childhood), and that he wanted to be as quiet as he could, just as if he had been playing that game.

I remark that the kids might have done better during the drill had they decided to treat it as they might a game of hide-and-seek.  But then, I back off, and reassure them that I can better keep them safe if they understand that in any emergency situation, since as fifth graders, they should start to know better by now, to listen absolutely to my instructions.  They owe that to themselves, as well as their parents.  I tell them that they have to trust in me just like my daughter Kate has to trust in her kindergarten teacher, or the kids and parents in the classroom of V.’s mom (who teaches in Long Beach USD) have to trust in her.  Then, I move on to what was left of my instructional time, hoping that today’s morning lesson, while painful, would sink in.

Finally Mosle:

After the lockdown drills are over, I try to reassure my students that their classrooms are unlikely to be overtaken by armed attackers. I do a short lesson on probability and the very remote chance that any of them will ever be involved in such an incident.

That evening, I arrive on Kate’s campus to pick her up.  Unlike my school, which is surrounded by a chain link fence around all the buildings, her district’s schools are wide open around the classroom.  It is not unlike the way in which schools were in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up in that same area when I was in elementary school.   I wonder what could happen on such a campus.  As we walk out, I ask her about her day.  She volunteers that they had a lockdown drill at school.

Then, perfectly, Kates recites, in her remarkable ability to mimic what she hears, exactly what her lockdown instructions had been from her teacher.

Even my kindergartner had been better at a Lockdown drill than I had been.