by Nora E. Webb
“How will we know when something’s wrong?” It’s my question, and I’m asking because something will be wrong. That’s the whole point of this. We, myself, and all the other teachers, are in a random classroom in the middle school at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. We signed up for this all-day training on active shooters in the classroom, never expecting that we’d be in a roleplay scenario—that was sprung on us when we arrived this morning, clutching our coffee and notebooks. The local police arranged this day, but quickly outsourced it to a disaster management team, who brought in teachers, medical first responders, and police officers. So that everyone can really test themselves, only the project coordinator, Todd, knows how many shooters there are, who they are, and what will happen.
“Oh, you’ll know. Now, let’s get to your roles.” Todd gestures at the other teachers in the room with me, announcing that they’ll be Wild Students 1-6. They look giddy, and my heart races a little. This is fine. I can be a teacher. Hell, I am a teacher. I’m going to be okay. I’m going to be fine. I can do this.
Todd turns to me, and I’m sure he can see the relief on my face; he can tell that I know what’s coming. “Nora, that means you’ll be playing the part of the substitute teacher.”
My ears are ringing. I’ve had a lot of panic attacks in my life, and this could be one coming. I’m laughing, and it’s shrill. “I had no idea that being a sub was even an option for this drill.” My voice is a little tight. “As a sub, I don’t have email access, won’t get the alert when the main office sends it out, and I don’t have a key.” I gesture wildly at the door, and then stare at it: It’s made entirely of glass. Who approved that?
But Todd cuts my thoughts short. “You also don’t have control of the classroom. Hence…music.” Todd clicks a button on a remote I didn’t know he had, and Axel F’s “Crazy Frog” starts blasting from the school-issued computer—it’s too loud for any morning, but especially a Saturday morning when I’m only halfway through my caramel macchiato. There’s a beat of silence. Wild Students 1-6 are bouncing in place to “Crazy Frog.” I hate this song. Before I can end my suffering, Todd gives us a bright smile, wishes us luck, and reminds us to “embrace the experience for what it is.”
I look at the other teachers. We don’t know what to do with that. So, they fall into their roles naturally. They chatter with each other, drag desks so they can sit closer, and generally ignore my teaching attempts. It isn’t my best work; I’m trying to be an accurate substitute teacher, fumbling through unfamiliar lesson plans (I’m a dedicated actress; give me a role and I will commit), and I can’t think straight from the noise. “Crazy Frog” is on repeat, and somehow getting louder. Or maybe it’s just echoing in my mind. The panic attack teases at the edge of my consciousness and committing to this role is not distracting me. Embrace the experience for what it is, Todd said to us. He can’t possibly know that I’ve already embraced this experience. I want to study and learn. I don’t want to embrace it again.
In fifth grade, two armed robbers held up a gas station down the street from my school. They figured the police wouldn’t come in shooting if they were in a school, so they broke into the cafeteria. The second graders were at lunch. I was in language arts. Mr. Booth is in the building, our principal announced over the PA. Mr. Booth, for John Wilkes Booth. Not a drill. We were hiding in a dark classroom; my teacher was trying not to cry. The hallway lights were still on, and the beam of light through the window in our door fell over my leg. Chris, a boy I thought hated me, hauled me into the shadows when he thought he heard footsteps.
Eighth grade. New state, new town, new school. Familiar PA announcement. Teachers, we are in a lockout situation. The threat was outside the building. Okay, that’s fine, we tell ourselves and each other. Just no recess. Okay. Hours pass. Teachers, the situation is resolved. Never an explanation given. We heard rumors there were snipers on the roof of our school’s chapel. That’s absurd, we all agreed. It’s the only story we ever heard.
In eleventh grade, a disgruntled student was dumped during B-Lunch via text. Retrieved gun from his car. It was hunting season, after all. He started pacing the halls, shouting her name. I was in U.S. History. Class had just started and Ms. Baker was reviewing her daily history fact. Attention—lockdown—just—someone call the—lock your doors! We all froze when the PA crackled overhead. The main office attendant was a friend’s mom, and I’d never heard her so terrified. Ms. Baker was frozen too, trapped behind her desk under the anxieties of being a first-year teacher in a shooting situation. Jake, the boy I had a ridiculous crush on, sprung to his feet and slammed the lights off. The door was locked. Ms. Baker was meticulous about that. All of us lying under large circular tables, waiting.
“We’re okay,” Jake whispered to me. I was crying. I didn’t want to do it again. Police sirens, feet scrambling, our safety resource officer shouting. The sound of metal hitting the linoleum. Okay. We’re okay. It’s over. His hand touched mine. I sobbed.
My second year of teaching. My computer was plugged into the speakers. The email alert was loud, and all of my students jumped. It popped up on my Promethean board for all of us to see. Lockout. Shooters in area. We got the details in bursts and from various texts from students’ parents, despite the best practice being all phones silenced and stashed. Armed robbers again, at the gas station down the road. I was shaky, but calm. I had done this before.
It is 10 a.m. It’s been an hour since Todd left me alone, and “Crazy Frog” is still playing. We’re getting tired of this. I’m on edge, pacing, and Wild Students 1-6 are using their phones to play a version of Cards Against Humanity. This could be realistic of a sub’s experience, I think. I’ve put my own phone away, because I cling to ‘best practice’ like a life preserver. When you’re hiding, you don’t want a flash of bright screen or an accidental text tone to give away your location. Worse still, you don’t want to be tempted to say goodbye to anyone. They will either grieve their own helplessness, or they will attempt to drive to your school, which causes more traffic for the first responders to fight against.
I imagine those trapped in hell find their own ways to mark the passage of time. With my phone tucked in my pocket, my method is through the looping of “Crazy Frog.” One full play is just under three minutes; I’ve counted. The shotgun blast echoes in the beat of silence before the song starts again. I want to throw up. Wild Students look at me. I have no key. I can’t lock that all-glass door.
“We should barricade it,” Student 4 says, and I nod eagerly.
It’s only when we’re dragging desks over that we realize: Barricading it is pointless. The door opens outward, into the hall. Another blast. The music is playing again, but we can hear the shotgun from one end of the hall and the higher-pitched semi-automatic at the other.
“Two shooters,” someone else says.
At least two, I correct in my head. In all of my experiences, I’ve never heard the gun go off. It always ended before that point. Even just firing blanks, the sounds are harrowing and I know I will hold onto this trauma. Weaving in between the two different guns are the screams from the hall. I am horrified at how young my colleagues manage to sound.
One and a half “Crazy Frogs” later, and we’ve chosen to barricade the door anyway. We interlock desks, stack them, shove them into the doorframe, their legs jutting out awkwardly. If a shooter gets the door open, at least he’ll have a mess of metal legs to contend with first. I find myself wondering if they could just stick the gun in through the gaps and shoot us anyway. I think I remember from other trainings that the average school shooting is over in five minutes, and it’s about body count for the gunmen. They will definitely stick the gun in and shoot us. The room feels like it’s spinning, and I’m grasping at the walls as I turn off the lights.
Based on this damned song, I’m guessing it’s not quite 10:15. Wild Student 3 wraps her sweatshirt around the speakers to muffle the music, and we wait. Some pace. Others curl under the desks we didn’t use. I remain standing, refusing to go back to eleventh grade. I press my forehead to the cool whiteboard, digging my nails into my palms. I will not cry. How far will this go? We don’t have to wonder much longer.
The pounding on the door makes us all jump. One of the Wild Students is whimpering, rocking back and forth under her desk. How far will this go? I feel faint, and my legs give out. I wanted to be better than this, wanted to do better than this, but I’m ten years old, fourteen years old, sixteen years old, twenty-two years old all over again. Twenty-four years old and I’m kneeling, fingers scratching at cheap school carpet, sobbing. I don’t want to die.
A deep voice from outside our door says it’s the police. Wild Students look at me, and I shake my head.
“We do not open the door, no matter what they say. Shooters have no qualms about lying.” I’m whispering, but my voice echoes amidst all our fear. And anyway, I can’t get to the door, even if I want to. The handle rattles, and the deep voice yells they’re coming in. Wild Student 2 is shaking.
The door swings open after less than a minute, and a hand shoves a police badge through the gaps in the legs. I can see the glint of metal. The same voice tells us to back away. I laugh bitterly, as if any of us would be close to the door in this scenario. The desks start to move, and I’m stunned. We all are. Someone is using a shield and their body weight to push our barricade out of the way. It takes them maybe less than twenty seconds to breach the room. I’m laughing at how pointless the barricade was. I don’t want to die.
There’s chaos as police burst into the room. “Crazy Frog” is still playing, time is still pressing on, but I am frozen on the ground. There’s someone standing over me, and I’m being lifted to my feet. A deep voice is talking to me with a firm hand on my shoulder and sympathetic eyes under a combat helmet.
“Can you stand? Ma’am? Are you with me? We’re going to line you up and I’m going to lead you outside, okay? All of you, put your hands on top of your head.”
I must look confused, and he’s gentle with me. “There are officers outside, and they don’t know who is and isn’t a threat. I’ll be in front of you, but that doesn’t matter—you could have a gun to my back. Walk slowly, hands visible. Show them you’re not a threat.”
I nod. This makes sense. I’m not a threat.
He pauses. “And whatever you do, don’t look down—just keep your eyes on my back and follow me down the hall, okay? We’re going to get you out of here, okay? You can look down when we’re outside, okay?”
I nod, tears brimming. Okay. We’re okay. We line up. I put my hands on top of my head. We make it four steps into the hallway before I step in something slick, skid a little, and almost trip over a—I disobey; I look down. It turns out they hired child actors too.
I hit the ground, and my knees are covered in the slick not-blood. Whatever it is, it’s thick and syrupy, dyed sickeningly red. The small girl sprawled next to me, the one I nearly tripped over, opens one eye. She takes me in, not moving—she’s committed to her role.
She cuts me off when I try to apologize. “Are you Ms. Webb?” She whispers the question. I nod, choking back tears. She’s okay. This isn’t real. I’m okay. “I thought so. Your hair.” She looks up to my signature red hair. “You teach my brother Greg at the high school.”
I nod again. I can see the resemblance, even with most of her face pressed to hard linoleum. The police officer is trying to coax me away. I glance up. Wild Students 1-6 must be outside. That’s good. This hallway has bodies everywhere, but the only “living” ones are the police officer and me.
She smiles at me; it’s crooked and blood-smeared. “You should go, Ms. Webb. Get out.” She sounds impossibly young.
I’m crying again, and the cop lifts me as I brush a lock of sticky hair out of her face. He’s leading me down the hallway just as more shots ring out from somewhere in the building. Just as we approach the glass doors that mean safety, practically running, I remember to put my hands up. I am not a threat.
Nora E. Webb left her high school English classroom in June 2021. She recently graduated with an M.A. in English from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and she now spends her time as a short story writer and essayist. Her work tends to match her reading interests: feminism, magical realism, dystopias, and mythology. Her fiction can be found in Halfway Down the Stairs literary magazine.