The school board declared our district would never be a Wikipedia entry in the ever-growing roll of school shootings. They invested in armed security in each classroom. Max, our Dedicated Tactical Support Officer, wore mirrored shades, sat in the back and never took hands off his weapon.
On that first Monday, Max insisted we play handball within the defensible perimeter of the cafeteria instead of in the kill zone of playground courts. On Wednesday, he put Frank Twombly in a stress position for body checking me during foursquare. That earned Max a conference with our teacher, Ms. Price, who abhorred violence. That afternoon he clenched his jaw so hard we heard his teeth creak.
Most of the time it was hard to tell if Max was awake, but one day, a sharp report from the chemistry lab caused him to bark ‘HIT THE DECK.’ His plastic chair spun across the floor in the wake of a stampede to ram pre-positioned furniture against the door. We cowered behind a shield wall of overturned desks, cans of soup at the ready to hurl at marauding shooters. Some kids barfed, many sobbed, most launched pre-drafted farewell texts to Final Moment chat groups. Those of us smothered beneath Max felt the vibrating cello tendons of his arms and heard the infantry of his heart marching double time against body armor. When the all clear sounded, many could not pick themselves up off the floor.
“We have to find a way back to normal,” Ms. Price said. She scrounged blankies, juice boxes and animal crackers from the evacuated Kindergarten. She read us Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, Green Eggs and Ham. Stories we still knew by heart. Max sat with a blanket shawled across broad shoulders, milk runnelling alongside his jaw when he attempted to drink.
Some parents complained this put us behind schedule for test prep. All experiments likely to cause a loud bang, such as dropping pure sodium into water, were banned from Chem lab, the science teacher fired.
Max and Ms. Price struck a truce. He led a geography lesson where we learned about Fallujah, how Jesus is a prophet of peace in Islam and the long tail of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The term ‘geopolitical clusterfumble’ gained currency around the lunch table. He also covered mandated curriculum on escape routes and hard corners with examples drawn from Sandy Hook and Columbine.
To fulfill the graduation requirement I wrote a poem about the first American school shooting on August 16, 1856 in Florence, Alabama. The schoolmaster passed around his tame sparrow, warning the students to be gentle. A boy crushed the sparrow underfoot, so the teacher strangled him in the cloakroom. The child’s father shot the schoolmaster, which is what made it a school shooting instead of a strangling.
Frank Twombly constructed a diorama of the University of Texas massacre, August 1, 1966, 17 dead and 31 injured. He called it the blueprint for modern school massacres. Ms. Price flagged Frank for help, but his parents had pull with the school board. Ms. Price got off with a warning.
It became clear even to the boys that Max and Ms. Price were a thing. He switched from camo to cardigans and left his body armor in the cloakroom after gaining weight from lunchroom chicken fingers and classroom birthday cake. He took homeroom duties while Ms. Price covered Chem Lab, perhaps diluting mission focus.
We assumed the alarm was yet another drill. Ms. Price tried to reason with Frank instead of hurling beakers the way we’d been taught. Frank used Max’s weapon, stolen from the cloakroom.
In the aftermath, Max gave up on getting his teaching certificate and re-upped. Some of us still send him letters but don’t update him on the latest news. He deserves to leave the grim stuff behind while serving in a combat zone.
No one was surprised really, the result pre-ordained as a chemical reaction. Frank not so much evil as self-fulfilling prophecy.
We are left wondering when the investments in our education will pay off in evacuation routes to safe spaces and all-clear peace of mind. Perhaps the solution lies in an imaginary country where childhood is not weaponized. But then we are too old for fairy tales.
Meanwhile, we tent blankies overhead and try to sleep. Some suck their thumbs, some pee the bed, some worse. We say goodnight to the mice and the red balloon. Goodnight to the sparrows and goodnight moon.
Notes from Guest Reader Brooke Fossey
I picked ‘Stories We Will Always Know’ because it’s smart, funny, dark, layered, well written, and it completely sticks the landing. More than that, it’s a timely satire that asks some really big questions about the nation’s school shooting epidemic. It’s a mini lampoon with the power of a huge think piece. Robert P. Kaye is a literary genius. Fight me.