You’ve heard it all over the media these past eight days: The teachers in Sandy Hook were heroes. And they were. No doubt about it. But they were also just teachers; they were doing — in a most basic and ordinary sense — what teachers do, all over the country, each and every day.
Teachers support and protect and nurture the children in their care. No matter what. I know, I’ve been there. My first three years of teaching were in an elementary school in the City of Compton, outside of Los Angeles. And while there were many stereotypes about Compton that were proved wrong by my students and their families over those years, it was nonetheless an impoverished city besieged by gang violence. And so, of course, there were shootings. Not school shootings, in the sense we now know them. But shootings right outside our school, that we could hear and, one time, even see. Gun violence that definitely placed me and the eight and nine-year-old children in my care in grave danger.
I learned pretty quickly what to do when the code red alarm would go off. I’d check outside my door and grab any child walking by (which one time caused great stress to the teacher who had allowed a little boy to go to the bathroom right before a shooting) and lock my door. Then we’d sit on the floor on our reading rug, under the windows that lined the back of the classroom, facing a residential street. We were close enough to the windows that if stray bullets came through, they would fly over our heads — or so we hoped. I’d read and sometimes the kids would share their stories of friends and neighbors and cousins who were shot, the way my sons talk about their summer vacations. We’d wait, with no cell phones and not even an intercom or building phone to contact the office (these schools were lacking in so many ways). And after a while, the All Clear bell would sound and we’d go about our day. No heroics, just grown-ups keeping children safe and calm, acting like the teachers they were.
In the last month of my last year there, I was coaching soccer after school on our asphalt playground. And we heard gunfire. More than I’d ever heard before, so much that I almost thought they were fireworks. I looked about, at the kids running across our “field,” enjoying their last moments of practice, and at the moms with their baby strollers lined up on the wall, ready to walk them home. One nodded at me (she knew the difference between gun shots and fireworks) and I blew the whistle and started to gather up my kids, right when the Code Red alarm sounded. I stood on the ramp to the trailer that served as our library and shooed the moms and the children, strollers and soccer balls, into the door. It was automatic. I didn’t fear for my life, standing out in the open as I was. I simply did my job.
As I stood there waving my arms, “In, in. Faster, let’s go” (in English and Spanish), I looked up over their small heads and saw a guy on a bike racing down the street on the other side of our fence. He was pedaling furiously and looking over his shoulder with his hand at the waistband of his sweatpants . . . where he was holding his gun. It was a bike-by, for crying out loud. And I was close enough to see his face. Suddenly, three guys from a house across the street burst out their door, jumped off the porch and chased after him, on foot. (What exactly they were trying to accomplish is beyond me.) My last kid was whisked through the door and I was safely behind them, though I already knew that the danger had passed.
The next day, the police came to school to record my statement and I easily picked the guy out of a photo line-up. A month later, I was packed up and on the road to San Francisco (not a moment too soon, according to my dad, who’d spent the past three years being nervous for me when I wasn’t nervous for myself). That fall, I received a phone call from the Prosecutor’s Office and they flew me down to LA to testify against this guy in court. A known gang banger, he had threatened a young teenager that morning for telling his friend to say no to gangs. Payback, that very afternoon, was getting shot in the face and leg (thankfully, he did survive). It was the shooter’s third strike and in California, that means you’re out. I was, as you might imagine, a very credible witness, white teacher lady and all. When it was the defense attorney’s turn to cross examine, he mocked me and my story, “Oh, I’m sure you were veeerrryy heroic, standing out there and letting all your students inside before you, while you just calmly surveyed the scene,” and on and on as if I’d embellished my role with undue heroics.
“No,” I told him. “I wasn’t playing the hero. I was doing my job.” What I did that day on that playground was automatic. I didn’t think about it, I did it. When you are a teacher, your students really are your “kids,” and you will do whatever it takes to keep them from harm’s way.
Victoria Soto, Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, and Mary Sherlach did not intend to be heroes when they walked into work at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday. They intended to be teachers.