We are in lockdown.
The police are on campus investigating an issue.
The children are safe.
These were not the precise words. They may have been arranged differently: We're in lockdown mode. Police are in the building and the matter is under control. The children are not in danger.
Or: We are calling to notify you that the school is currently in a lockdown situation. Police are here. The children are safe and there is no danger.
It was 8:08 AM when my cell phone rang this morning, and it didn't matter what the hell the exact words or sequence of words were. Something, a robot, a machine, dialed my cell phone number because that is the number on the emergency contact list kept on record at the school that my children attend. The school is in lockdown, the recorded voice announced, the school is in lockdown, police are there, children are safe.
My bones froze. A second, maybe two, I could not move. Then, Newtown, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Taft Union, Chardon High. No, it can't be that. They are safe. Safe. Upstairs, Michael dressed for work. I ran, ran, don't remember the movement of my feet or ascending the risers, the rush was too great.
"Something's going on at school," I said to him, "but the kids are safe. I'm not panicking." I pressed my hands together, my wrists, the veins, trembling, my heart's chamber os...cil...lat...ing. Something whirred in my head, like the fan Michael turns on each night. White noise. A scramble. No, I won't get in the car. No. I will wait for more news. No, I will call my neighbor. Her son is in the same school. The same lockdown. The same police. Safe.
"What? Let's find out what's going on," he said bluntly—his sober response an attempt to contain alarm.
I punched numbers on the same phone that had only moments prior transmitted horrific words. My neighbor hadn't gotten the message. I called another neighbor, another mother. She hadn't gotten the message. More whirring: How does this work? Who gets the messages? What does one do with the words? I'll call Lulu. No. What if she is crouched on the floor, in a corner, or under her desk, and her cell phone rings and the killer hears it? No! No. If she plays by school rules, her phone will not be on. It will be in her locker. No. Kids break the rules. She'll have it. But it will be on silent. I won't call. She's safe. Why are my eyeballs tearing? Is this magical thinking? No. I won't panic. Lu is safe. Max is safe. They are safe.
The woman who cleans my house every month showed up at the door. I'd forgotten she was coming. Information about the lockdown is trickling in via text, she tells me. She knows someone who has a daughter or a niece, a relative, at the school. Rumor. Conjecture. Guesses. This is not what the school wants, I'm sure. They want LOCKDOWN. Do you know what that means? It means the opposite of evacuation. It means you are in a situation known as a state of emergency. An emergency holding. You are put in a hole, a quiet cell. A dark, silent hole. Hiding. Something outside of the hole is threatening you. Something threatening is happening. You don't know what's happening because you are not allowed to communicate with anyone within or without the hole. The hole is a safe place where you remain down and locked.
I cracked and sent a text to my son. I know Max's phone, if he has it, is on silent. It is never on ring. In a large whale-like bubble, I thumbed (praying this wouldn't be the one day his ringtone was on): Are you ok? School is in lockdown what's going on? He thumbed back: Fine ya. A drug search, lk 5 cop cars.
Then Lulu's text: Ya, it might have been somebody with a gun... But we r all good now so it's fine. :)
My body arched into a reflexive exhale, a warm, wheezy stream of air tumbling furiously from my lungs. Still. Lockdown. Anything can happen. Anything, terrible things, have happened. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown... What kind of messages did they receive?
(So far, in 2013, within the first thirty-one days of this new year alone, there have been eight, eight, school shootings in the United Sates of America.)
Students began posting on Twitter: This is for realz! #lockdown; Valentines day and I'm stuck in the corner of TC #romantic #lockdown #BASICBITCHTWEET; this will be a valentines day to remember #codegreen; a senior went psycho and the popos had to come #wesurvived; Police supervised lockdown #awesome #CodeGreen.
On Facebook, kids were updating their statuses: I'm scared. I'm hiding in a corner. We're in lockdown.
At 8:32 AM, my iPhone rang and lighted with another recorded voice message from the school, this time notifying parents, guardians, loved ones, people, human beings who love those kids more than anything else in the entire fucking world, that all was fine. The children are safe. Lockdown has ended. Everything is under control.
An email followed from the school principal which gave me only a vague idea of what happened within or around the school's brick walls. He wrote that their security procedures were put into place as soon as the situation called for it. A protocol was followed which required the lockdown. The lockdown ended uneventfully, the situation addressed.
"In these times we have to treat every concern with the highest level of response necessary to ensure the safety of all."
God. Help us.
The principal had been tipped off by some, I don't know how many, smart, thoughtful, concerned students as to a possible—a possibly very real—threat. He took these concerns seriously and responded the way the world must respond now: swiftly, peremptorily, judiciously. I am so thankful for this. But sad for the world. And I want the details.
Details. As if the details will offer me comfort. Control.
Now, more stories unfold, evolve, about a quiet, long-haired boy sending messages into the world, trigger warnings, that he was coming undone. Loosened? Mad? Disturbed? Who knows! How many of us are confused and distressed and angry? I can't say what the boy did or articulated. I don't know, I don't wish to engage in conjecture. Truly, I don't wish to engage with anything at the moment. Just the keys of my laptop. It's all I can do to stay sane. Everything else I'd planned for today is finis. We are all so close to sudden ruin. Disaster. Immunity is nonexistent. Safety? Safety is an illusion. Vulnerable is what we are. We don't know what's around the corner. In the corner. Anything can happen at any moment. Any day. Valentine’s Day. While exchanging chocolates and candied hearts.
Joan Didion's words haunt me:
Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant.
When my children leave the house I say two things: “I love you. Be safe.” All I really should say is, "I love you."
I love you, I love you, I love you.
[The photo above was taken with my iPhone at the local library—a former Monastery.]