Letter: Here's what it's like to fear for your safety at school
Bolstad writes, "There were two stick figures. One was laughing and pointing a gun at the other. The second was crying with its head exploding. My name was printed just above the explosion."
After school the other day, I climbed into my car and sobbed. I couldn’t stop. I started the car just to hear something besides my crying breaths. This happens every time a kid shooter decides to kill people in his school. My flashback is clear as the day I lived through mine.
I am deliberately leaving out any identifying details of the school or my colleagues. It doesn’t matter and I’m so sick of people pointing judgmental fingers and shoving shaming sounds in any direction. I don’t want any part of second- and third-guessing the people who trusted me with their children and paid me to do the job I have loved since day one. Because I’ve had more female than male principals, I’ll use she/her for clarity. This is my lens. I’ll tell you the way I remember that day.
As I smoothed a piece of notebook paper that didn’t quite make it to the waste basket, I barely registered the black pen stick figures. I always check to see what’s on them. I teach writing. It might be somebody’s rough draft that showed promise or a love letter that failed miserably. Sometimes a few words of support from me can help a kid. Anyway, it looked like hundreds of others I’d seen before. In my career spanning four states and nine schools, I don’t have a running count of the wadded scribbles I’ve picked up from my classrooms’ floors. Hundreds, for sure. But this one was different.
There were two stick figures. One was laughing and pointing a gun at the other. The second was crying with its head exploding. My name was printed just above the explosion. I don’t remember when I started shaking. Then I sat down. I do remember telling myself to breathe. In my head I had to say it several times before I was able to do it. Breathe, I mean. I scanned the room. It was empty. Helping kids through post-traumatic experiences has taught me to get my bearings. “Look at your surroundings, Dawn,” I told myself. “See something, smell something, touch something….” I started the process. See the classroom door, smell the coffee, touch the desk, hear the kids heading out to their buses, taste …. The taste was like acid and I ran for the wastebasket just in case my lunch decided to make a fast exit. Breathe. Breathe again. Again….
I don’t know how much time passed before I began to walk to the principal’s office with the paper in hand. The principal was moving paperwork across her desk when I walked through her door. I placed the drawing in front of her and sat down. I’ve never had a poker face, and I could see that my look had her full attention. She asked if I was OK and if I needed water. I shook my head no, and pointed to the paper. She sighed and leaned back in her chair to process.
It didn’t take long for her to gather key people into her office: the superintendent, the assistant principal, every program coordinator/director we had, the school psychologist, and the other teachers who this “artist” saw every day. Folding chairs filled the space. I said, “I’m scared.” Hands reached for my shoulders. Soft words of support came from everyone. Then the discussion began.
Honestly, I can’t remember who said what or if I remember it all…. “This kid wouldn’t do that for real. It’s a picture, not a …. He hunts with his grandpa. Didn’t he get his first deer last season? Aren’t we encouraging kids to draw and write their feelings? Can you suspend a kid for this? Should we call the sheriff? Why would we call the sheriff? God, he was playing hangman with this week’s vocab words during work time this morning with the other kids in his class. Does that mean something? He drew a picture. It’s violent. We gotta take this seriously. We ARE taking this seriously! What the hell! What the hell? What the hell.”
I went home to my apartment at 6. Family had been called. They said they would “handle it” so the school wouldn’t have to. They did. They arranged for a psychologist who would see him in six weeks—the soonest available appointment. Apparently, if he was going to kill himself it would be a higher level of urgency. In the meantime, the school psychologist would see him weekly because it was all she could do. His pediatrician put him on depression/anxiety meds “in the meantime.”
I went back to work/school the next day. It never occurred to me that I could do anything else. He showed up, first thing, to give me a well-rehearsed apology. His family truly are good people. He looked sorry, but my trust meter was deep into red alert. The rest of the kids came in and took their seats. I handed back their tests from the last unit. It was another day, and every kid gets a new start every day. Today was a new day.
It took me months to stop having nightmares about the drawing. I put “my affairs in order.” Called my sister to make sure that she knew that my life insurance policy was to pay for the care of my animals in case of my “ultimate demise.” She said that was a bit melodramatic, and asked if I was OK. I told her I was fine, and it had been a long week. No point in passing my worry to someone who could do nothing about it.
I started praying that if he did kill anyone he would kill me first because the guilt would be a slow agonizing death in itself. I submitted my resignation at the end of the school year—not because of this. Actually, I didn’t expect anything to happen differently than it did. It’s not like there is a handbook for this sort of thing.
This past week, the news reported another mass shooting at a high school—four kids dead. Others were wounded. The school had a meeting with the shooter’s parents about a drawing earlier that same day. At a news conference, a reporter asked the county’s prosecuting attorney why the school didn’t “do anything about the drawing?” I didn’t even listen for the answer.. Sheesh, apparently, the school job descriptions need to be updated with super hero and psychic.
The nightmares are back. I sent an email to my primary care provider that I wanted to up my anxiety meds. I’ll avoid watching the news for a while. Please excuse me. I’ve got lesson plans to write for next week, and I’m done with this conversation.
Dawn (Schilling) Bolstad lives in Fargo.
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