An Oregon teacher’s letter to lawmakers: We don’t need your prayers, we need your courage

An Oregon teacher asks: Why should we fight when you won't?

Published January 1, 2016 11:30AM (EST)

We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.

Thursday, October 1 was my second day of class as a writing instructor at a community college in Oregon.

Following the shooting that occurred at Umpqua Community College on Thursday, where 10 people were killed, I realized that as a new hire, I hadn’t been fully informed on my college’s emergency protocols. What should I do in the event of what we now call, with heartbreaking regularity, an active shooter situation? According to my school’s Emergency Response Guide, I should attempt to evacuate my students if it is deemed safe to do so. My classroom is on the third floor; to evacuate we would need to descend two flights down an open staircase, and exit through a wide lobby. We would need to know with absolute certainty that the active shooter was not on the third floor, or the second, or anywhere in the lobby. In other words, evacuation, my first course of action, seems highly unlikely.

The next option, according to my college, is to lock the door. This unfortunately is not possible, as the door to my classroom can only be locked with a key, a key that I do not have and won’t ever be given. Left, then, in my third-floor classroom with its unlocked door, I am instructed to turn off the lights and lower the blinds, to use the tables to build a barricade, and get everyone out of the line of fire. I am further instructed to “arm [myself] with classroom items (e.g., stapler, chair, fire extinguisher) to fight back with in the event that the shooter attempts to enter [my] room.” 

In the next paragraph, I am told what to do if that shooter does in fact enter our classroom: “There is no one procedure that can be recommended in this situation,” the manual informs me with grim honesty, before adding, “[i]f you must fight, fight to win and survive.”

Fight to survive. I am a teacher, with a master’s degree in creative writing, and this is part of my job.

These security measures — generic, unfollowable, completely incompatible with the reality of my school — are, in their inadequate way, essential. It is not the school’s fault that heavily armed people, whether through incurable rage or mental instability, all too frequently choose academic institutions as the settings for the horror they unleash. I recognize that we do not have the resources to retrofit our facilities with safer features. I am positive that handing me — or any teacher — a gun will solve nothing. Regardless of the level of preparedness, though, it is clear that schools and teachers are being asked to do a job that they are not meant to do.

My son will start kindergarten next year. At 5 years old he and his classmates, in addition to learning reading and math, will be walked through lockdown drills by a teacher who will likely be hiding an immense terror as she has students practice finding a cozy place to hide and times how long they can remain quiet. It will probably seem like a game to him at first, but eventually my son and the rest of America’s schoolchildren who are learning the same lessons will ask why. Why have we allowed our schools to become a place where children must hide, and teachers must fight to survive?

What do you recommend I tell him? This week, when I speak to my students about what happened at Umpqua and about our own emergency procedures, what do you advise I say after I explain that the stapler and whiteboard markers — the only classroom supplies I have in my room — are critical to our survival?

I could tell them that your thoughts and prayers are with us. I could tell them we have your deepest sympathies. But I am teaching a class on argument, instructing my students on the importance of facts. So instead I will tell them the truth: They have to be prepared to hide out of the line of fire, and I to fight for our survival, because you, our lawmakers, haven’t done your jobs. I will tell them that their rights, my rights, the rights of my 5-year-old, to attend school without fear of facing senseless slaughter by machine-gun fire, are not important to you, that we must be prepared to fight tooth and nail, stapler and whiteboard marker, because you refuse to fight the gun lobby in this country.

The next time you have an opportunity to sponsor or vote on common-sense gun legislation, instead of fearing the attack ads the gun lobby will undoubtedly launch against you, the lost campaign revenue, or the threat to your job, I hope that you think of me and my students, of the rest of the educators and students across the country, who have been asked to stand up to gunmen because you are too scared to stand up to a handful of lobbyists.

By Melissa Duclos

Melissa Duclos is a writing instructor, freelance editor, and the founder of The Clovers Project, which provides mentoring to writers at various stages of their careers. Her work has appeared in The Offing, Electric Literature, and English Kills Review, among other venues. She lives in Portland, Oregon and tweets at @MelissaDuclos.

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