Code Red Lockdown

Let’s talk about Lockdown Drills.

We’ve been doing them longer than some might think. I remember the first year we began implementing them—the year after 9/11. I don’t remember if the reason was because of 9/11 or if there had been a rash of school shootings, but during an early staff meeting, we were told that everyone was to begin lockdown drills in addition to fire drills.

I thought: they can’t mean me. How am I supposed to do a lockdown drill with kindergarteners? What do I tell them?

The kids already knew how to do a fire drill. We heard the bell. We got up from our desks. We lined up at the door. We walked out to the fence line and waited for the bell to ring again. Done. It was…like a parade. They behaved like it was a parade, anyway. There was a certain bounce to their step. They waved shyly to siblings and friends along the way. Everyone behaved very well, but it was a parade. Not a real fire.

The lockdown drill was to happen the next day. I thought long and hard about what to tell my little ones. I decided to make it as much of a game as I could because the reality was we’d probably never have a school shooting. Why traumatize them?

I told them when we heard the speaker say, “Code red,” we were going to make a game of hide n seek in the classroom—the best we could. I gave them permission to have as many as could fit in the class bathroom. Extra treats for cooperation in squeezing whoever wanted to be in there. They could even stand on the toilet, something that was normally completely against the rules. We could hide in the little book library in the corner. Together we came up with ways we could hide. The giggling was contagious.

“Under desks?”

“Yes!” I said.

“Under your desk, Teacher?”

“Yes! See how many of you fit there.”

I told them I would have to close the blinds and I would have to turn off the lights. Because we were hiding. Pretending like no one was home. I allowed the whispers and quiet laughter. What harm was there in shielding them from the truth of preparing for a horror show?

That was the best I could come up with that first practice drill. The kids were nearly celebratory as they took up their places. The whole drill lasted about 5 minutes. Afterward, I let them play. Teacher needed a mental health minute to process what we’d just done.

I thought long and hard about what I had taught them. That rules can be broken for unclear reasons? That it was okay for the teacher to lock them inside in the dark? That school wasn’t always a safe place? What trust boundaries had we crossed in those moments?

Fast forward a few months and we had a real “Code red.”

I wasn’t prepared for it. I was in the middle of a lesson. The kids were quietly going about learning.

“Code Red,” said the speaker.

I jumped up from my reading group. The real thing—this was it. I didn’t know what the danger was or where it was coming from. I didn’t know which door to lock first. My hands shaking, I went to the door nearest to me, and began speaking to the children, “This is our Code Red drill, guys. Who remembers how we do this? Are we ready to play our hide n seek game?”

I went to the front door. Locked it. The kids were a whirlwind, a mass of noise, going to their respective hiding places. Some of them remembered. Some of them didn’t, and stood in the middle of the room like lost puppies. I lowered and closed the blinds. “How about under your desk, Brandon? Can you hide there?” Off went the lights.

A minute passed. Then another.

I crawled over in the direction of soft crying. A little boy grabbed me around my neck. “I don’t like the dark,” he said.

“It’s okay. I won’t leave you,” I said.

Another child hugged onto me from behind.

The minutes ticked by. More weeping as children emerged from the bathroom to huddle next to us on the floor. Pretty soon I had all of them in my lap, clinging to my neck, touching me in some way. A corner of my dress balled up in small hands. It seemed to take forever. Where was the “all-clear?”

Finally, finally. The all-clear came.

We had a playtime. We talked about the dark. We talked about what had just happened and how we could make it better.

That time, no one was actually shooting up the school. It was an armed suspect running through the neighborhood and a police chase. We were lucky.

But it seems like we had one real Code Red every year.

And during that time when I was taking care of someone else’s children, hoping no gunman would come to us—I worried about my own son in another classroom. My daughter in her classroom. I prayed they weren’t at recess or they hadn’t left the classroom to go to the bathroom, or the library, or the speech therapist, or to take attendance to the office. I hoped no child was left wandering out alone as the doors were being locked across campus.

And now, looking back, I wonder, if we had been armed teachers, at what point was I supposed to get my gun out of the small storage box where my purse was kept? When would I have loaded it? While I was on the floor in a dog pile of children?

I can’t even fathom this when the lockdown by itself was so traumatizing. I’m still left with the shocking memory of waiting out those moments in the dark wondering if a blast of gunfire would break the windows and kill us anyway.

Human Backpack

The unique thing about Junior is that he’s an identical twin. Identical. That means everything should be the same for the both of them. Does the other twin have any problems? Yes and no. The other twin, we’ll call him Eric, is socially awkward but he doesn’t have any of the serious problems Junior has. I would even argue that his social awkwardness comes from living a life wearing his brother on his back.

Let me explain. Junior used to do something that bothered me even way back forty years ago. Eric was a happy-go-lucky baby. The kind of baby who would entertain himself for hours with a couple of Matchbox cars or sticks, or even rocks. He loved rocks. Eric was deep in an imaginative world doing his own thing.

And Junior, who always seemed to look pained would hang onto his brother from behind in a weird backward bearhug. They looked like Siamese twins, and poor Eric was forced to play with this human backpack weighing him down. Literally he would drag around his brother as he walked. The thing is for a while, the whole family thought this was funny and we laughed at Eric, who happily went about his business with his brother hanging around his neck until finally, he’d lose it, and scream until someone came to get Junior off him.

Perhaps the saddest part. As soon as you turned your back, Junior was right back hanging onto his brother.

Soon enough it wasn’t funny.

I began to see it as a symbol, especially the older we got. Junior was always the one hanging on us. With Junior, no one had a life. Every ounce of attention had to be on him always. He’d tantrum everywhere. He was kicked out of pre-school for peeing in the drinking fountain. He was kicked out of the elementary school in first grade for throwing chairs at his teacher. He chirped like a bird. He cussed. He wouldn’t wear shoes. He bit and kicked, and ran away. He was always on our minds and hearts, ever more creases in our parent’s faces. Junior took over the whole family.

But even worse, is how the story ends. Eric and Junior are over forty years old, and Eric has never had a life outside of caring for his brother, our brother. Eric has never dated, never lived away from his childhood home, never gotten away from his brother. Conditioned from the womb, from toddlerhood, it’s all he’s known. He’s still wearing this human backpack. His brother.

Why Fruitcake and a box of nuts?

This Christmas, I sent my parents a gift box of nuts and a fruitcake. This isn’t because I’m making fun of dysfunction or mental health. It’s because I’ve gotten my dad a fruitcake every year for as long as I can remember.

“A fruitcake for the fruitcake,” my mother has always said whether my dad is in the room or not. Actually, no matter who was in the room, she’s said this even as he pulled out his buck knife and cut away the plastic and ribbon to his fruitcake. Even as he sliced a piece for himself and offered to share the rest all around.

You see, we’re not just being irreverent or politically incorrect when we can be secretive. It’s all out there like laundry waving in the breeze on a clothesline. This family laundry is more like underwear and we may have forgotten to wash it. No, more like the washing machine is broken because true story…it is broken. And somebody had to reach in there and swish the underwear around with his hands and then squeeze out the excess water, and then, pin it on the clothesline, each pair of fruit-of-the-looms heavy and hanging low, low enough for the dogs to jump up and grab ’em and drag ’em around the yard, giving them a good shake with his head, tossing them in the air with glee. This is not just a blog about family dysfunction, mental illness, dirty laundry, a broken washing machine, or even Christmas presents.

This metaphor is my family in a nutshell. The fruitcake, the dogs, the mud, the swish. All of it.

But I digress. The fruitcake is legitimately explained. Why the box of mixed nuts?

Well, obviously, my mother is diabetic and I can’t just send them a tin of cookies and a box of candy like most families do at Christmas. I was trying to watch out for her sugar levels so I sent protein and healthy fats.

We’ll get into the story about healthy and non-healthy fats later because this blogger is among other things, a flawed fitness enthusiast always looking for the way to better health. For now, it’s important my reader know I had not spoken to my parents since September, and when Christmas rolled around I wanted to offer a way in to forgiveness, an olive branch so to speak. What better way to do that than food? And the Christmas spirit?

Did I get a response? Did anybody call and say, “thanks?” Did I expect anything in return? The answer to all of these questions is: no.

That doesn’t mean that we’re not speaking now, currently, in January 2018. We are. Were there apologies all around? Nope. Was there any resolution to the fight from September? Nope. Did we mention the fight in September? Nope.

Do I have hope for my family’s well being and mental health?

Here’s the thing. I always have hope.

Always.

Christmas 2017 is so last year. But the fact is and will always be we’re a family of mixed nuts and a fruitcake.