(From June, 2018. Sadly, still relevant)
My six-year-old granddaughter and I love to play hide-and-seek. She’s much better at it now than when she was three. In those days she’d announce where she was hiding, “I’m in the closet, Grandma!” and still be surprised and delighted when I found her.
Sometimes, now, she actually stumps me and I call out, “I give up, where are you?” Giggling with glee, she’ll slither out of some impossibly small space, full of smug satisfaction. Hide-and-seek – such easy fun.
Wednesday afternoons I volunteer in her classroom, listening to first-graders read. It’s a big square, hopeful space, full of light and life and learning. From floor to ceiling, the stuff of well-organized first grade knowledge calls out: writing a letter, counting money, how mountains are formed, experiments with plants, math patterns, reminders about mutual respect, and piles and piles and piles of books. So much to know, so much to learn!
My time with them is right after recess, when they have just come in from the playground. One by one, they come to me in the back hallway, between the bathrooms and the coat cubbies. They are sweaty and dirty and breathless, their little bodies still pulsing energy from their play. Black and white and many shades of brown. Tall and short, all in various stages of toothlessness. Although I love one of them so much more deeply, I must admit I love them all.
I can’t see what the rest of the class is doing, but I can hear. Their teacher is sharp and skilled and serious about learning. She has an impressive bag of tricks to get them to settle down for writing and reading time. Most days they respond dutifully and quickly. But this particular day -hot and muggy, so close to the end of the school year – she needed all those tricks. And still the noise level kept rising.
Until, in the middle of it all, this: a sharp interruption from the PA system: “Code Red.” That’s all, just “This is a Code Red.”
They moved so quickly. The lights were extinguished, the door locked, and within seconds they were all huddled in the dark. Most of them fit in a little nook behind the teacher’s desk. Their teacher guarded the entrance to this little space. Others were curled up in their coat cubbies.
Twenty-some innocent little bodies, sitting on the floor, hoping not to be found. Hiding from someone who might burst into their classroom, armed with an assault weapon and a bellyful of rage, who might find them easy targets for his anger. This was the sickest game of hide-and-seek I could imagine.
The worst of it was the silence. Being well trained, they knew that any noise might reveal to the shooter that this was not an empty room to be ignored. Any noise might put them and their classmates in grave danger, might make them targets. Please don’t find us. Please don’t find us.
It might have been two minutes. It might have been five or ten. It felt like forever, waiting in the silence for something to happen, praying it wouldn’t.
What was going on out there? I strained to hear, listening for screams or shouting or sirens. Nothing. I was 99% sure that it was just a drill. From where I stood I could see across the courtyard to the other corridor of the building. There the custodians were going about their work. They wouldn’t do that if there was a shooter in the building. Would they?
I couldn’t see my granddaughter as she huddled behind the teacher’s desk. Was she scared? Confused? What was going through her head? How did she understand this? I wanted so badly to go to her and hold her close. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep her safe.
I crouched around the corner from the door and couldn’t be seen right away if a shooter came in. There were several classroom chairs within easy reach. I imagined having a split second to grab one and throw it at him. Could I do it? Would it be enough? Then what would happen? Crazy thoughts, in a crazy situation.
Then just as suddenly as it began, it was over. “Code green,” the PA system announced. Just a drill. The first-graders went back to their work, slightly subdued, but only for a few minutes. Then it was back to their noisy busyness; precious, beloved, one-of-a-little people who have done this before and will do it again, in the midst of day full of learning. I, on the other hand, was completely heartbroken and won’t forget the fear and the sense of helplessness. My grandma heart still hurts to think about it.
God forgive us for making this necessary. God forgive us for making it normal. Hide-and-seek will never be the same.