This Is Not a Drill: How to Go Into Lockdown in a School Library

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Perch at the circulation desk, smiling like a happy librarian even though you haven’t had a lunch break. Tap out an interlibrary loan request into a system optimistically called WorldShare. Sneak bites of sticky edamame pasta and Impossible sausage, regretting a flirtation with veganism.

Marvel at the sight of forty-five teenagers bent over books, utterly silent—maybe for the first time in their lives.

Startle at the ding, ding, ding from the PA. “This is a lockdown.” The assistant principal’s Jamaican accent is tightening like a wire. “This is NOT a drill.”

Jump to your feet, still chewing pasta, ushering students to the back of the library. “Down, sit down everyone.” The kids remain standing until another teacher repeats your instructions. Glance at your private book-filled office. Could you go in there, protect your own sweet life?

Remember that your office doesn’t lock—and is all windows. The muscle memory of fourteen years of lockdown trainings clicks in. You are saving lives, you’re a librarian, and duty takes over like the onset childbirth, eclipsing personhood like contractions.

Scramble for your library keys, rush into the hall, glance both ways. (The art teacher later tells you she could hear gunshots, auditory hallucinations, but you do not). Lock one side of the door, then jam the key into the second door’s lock—the one with the tricky canister.

Turn key, turn key, why isn’t the key budging? A young teacher, let’s call him Gavin, joins you in the hallway. Ask him, “Can you try? Does your key work?” The college counselor Chris says, “We have to turn off the lights,” and you thank her because there is no room in your brain for lights, only locking. Now Chris tries her key too—no luck. The door has been broken in one way or another for the fourteen years you have worked at this school.

Jam the key again and again. Rattle, jar, slam, wiggle the door. Make all the noise you’re not supposed to make right now. Feel your chest collapse.

Look up and see a stampede of kids pouring through the hallway, running towards you. Invite them into the library that won’t lock, sending them with the others on the floor. One-hundred, one-hundred-fifty people now.

Text the principal. Call the assistant principal. “Go into any of the offices that don’t have windows, and if that doesn’t work, the theater.”

Try to open the theater door. Kids’ bodies are pressed against the door, a familiar feeling from when your daughters barricade themselves in their room during a tantrum. “Open up!” you command. See the pure bright terror in theater teacher Rudy’s eyes. The black box teacher is full and silent. Hold the door open as more than a hundred students stream through. “Are there more? How many more?” Rudy asks, and you shake your head. “More and more.” Everyone crams together on the floor with their phones and books, sitting knee to knee, in the costume-changing area. The ninth graders here are still strangers to each other. It’s the third week of school.

Tower over the students because it makes you feel protective, even though it’s the opposite of what you’re supposed to do. Stand for an interminable amount of time. When they start to murmur questions, whisper, “It could be a car accident outside. We’ve gone into lockdown for that reason before. Let’s just breathe and think good thoughts. We are all safe.” But are we? Ache to return to the library—always the safest place in your life.

Ding, ding, ding. The assistant principal announces the lockdown has been downgraded to a shelter-in. The danger is confirmed to be outside on the street. Teachers can keep teaching, students can keep learning, but no one can go outside. Confirmed. Danger. Outside.

Circle and hover and fret while some students return to the library, and others remain curled up in fetal positions in the theater. Let Rudy and Chris comfort the students because you’re too out of your mind. Flick on the lights, and see students pouring into the stacks, filling every row of books.

Return to the circ desk. Wonder how the colorful books could still be here lined up in Dewey Decimal order, and how the book cart could still be overflowing. How could your favorite rock and Rubix cube still rest on your desk? How could the Spanish translation on display of Steve Job’s memoir still look so shiny and crisp in its Kapco cover? How could students still be lining up to borrow Nicola Yoon and Raina Telgemeier books, asking, “Do I need a library card?” How could you respond, as you always do “You don’t need a library card for a school library—just a name!… What’s your name?… How do I spell that?… So nice to meet you!”

Wonder when your adrenaline will stop surging, and smile at the students. Wonder how, while you were losing it over keys, calling, texting, running, the students scanned the bookshelves. They selected volumes, opened and turned a page. They reached for words to carry them through.

Speak to the assistant principal, demand a new key. Learn that a student from one of the three high schools had a weapon (the AP won’t say what kind). The student was threatening people outside the school, then fled to the YMCA, where he was arrested. He was a child. Maybe he was from your school, maybe he was from the another one.

Smile when yet another student approaches the desk. “Can I really borrow a book, even with everything going on?” Keep saying yes, yes, yes, until you’re out of time.

Pack up, asking yourself why you did not think of your own two children at home, not even for a flash of a second. When the students shout, “Have a good weekend, Miss!” hold your breath because the door almost rattles off its hinges from the rush of teens and bulging backpacks. Feel your phone vibrating with texts from people who love you—everyone except your partner, who missed it all.

Finish your soggy pasta, log off your computer, check the public transit app to gauge preschool pickup time. Look around, see if there are books you should take home for the weekend. Determine that there are too many great books here, too many to ever choose from, or maybe you are just too exhausted. Breathe as much as you can with lungs like deflated balloons. Respond to the texts: We are all safe now. All the students are going home to their parents tonight. They borrowed more books today than ever.

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