IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Lived Through A School Shooting And It Made Me Appreciate My Students Even More

A student, angry with a punishment given to him by our firm but fair senior administrator, came back with a gun.
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Tessa A. Adams
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A student, angry with a punishment given to him by our firm but fair senior administrator, came back with a gun.
Tessa Adams Classroom.jpg

Code Red Drills. As educators, we’ve all been through them. They have always been an eerie part of our routine. After all, high schools aren’t supposed to be that dark. They aren’t supposed to be that quiet. 

I remember the drills as being thought-provoking inconveniences. What if an armed intruder came into my second home and threatened my life and the lives of my students? How long will this drill take before I can get class rolling again? 

The most uncomfortable part of those drills was squishing 27 high schoolers into a corner, and the alarming door knob check by the drill administrators that -- no matter what -- would scare us half to death. It always sounded like someone running into the door and shaking it with all of their might.

January 5th, 2011, I longed for that door knob check. I waited with open ears and a guarded heart to be startled by the drill administrators’ check; however, this sound never came, because on this day, it wasn’t a drill. 

I didn’t know that yet, though.

It was the first day of second semester. The class was creative writing. The code red occurred an hour into the class and just 15 minutes out from our lunch. I had 27 of the most wonderful students in the school in my classroom. As juniors and seniors, these kids were the leaders. They had everything going for them including, up until 12:51 that day, their optimistic innocence. 

We were smiling, and laughing, and introducing ourselves with silly fervor, and then we heard a male voice state “Code Red” over the intercom. I learned later that our activities director said, “This is not a drill. Code Red.” But we were having such a good time that first day, and we only heard “Code Red.” 

No problem. We had practiced this. The lights went off. The door was locked. I hid my 27 17-and-18-year-olds away from the window and door, and we waited. I waited for the deafening door check. They waited for the words, “This concludes our Code Red drill.”

As I sat there shushing my giggly group, my gears began turning. Code Red drills didn’t happen during lunch. Code Red drills happen in the morning or the period after lunch. I remember thinking that they must be testing the lunch supervisors’ knowledge of where the kids should go in the lunch room. 

As 12:51 turned to 1:20, I began craving that door knob check. My heart beat harder; the kids got restless. There were many bathroom complaints; many hunger pangs; many innocent worries. 

As we sat there in silence, reality started to invade. Then, in the corner, I saw a student’s face illuminated by the light of her phone. I was about to tell her to put her phone away when she said, “But Mrs. Adams, read this.” It was a desperate text from her mother regarding her well-being. 

I told myself someone must have tipped her off about the really long drill, but as I waited, I noticed two more illuminated faces. Then four and then all that had cell phones. The rule is strict about no cell phones during a drill. It’s a safety measure that is way harder to facilitate than it would seem, especially when panic ensues. 

But as I mentioned, these were very nice people locked in with me, and they heeded my request to keep all electronics put away. I appointed one girl to be our “cell phone kid” and we let her look up the news reports to confirm what we were trying to deny.

As our situation began to reveal itself to be all too real and not at all a drill, I allowed them to take out their devices. Our cell phone kid had learned that the shooter was dead.

A student, angry with a punishment given to him by our firm but fair senior administrator, came back with a gun. He shot and killed my beautiful mentor and put three bullets into my principal before leaving and killing himself in a parking lot. As we checked the news, I used my best judgment that day. I’m not saying it was right or perfect, but I had all of them contact their loved ones explaining that they were safe. I would need to know that my children were safe.

Throughout the five hours we were locked in my room, we learned a lot about each other. All of us remained as calm as we could. Many of them had to fight off discomforts dealing with hunger and restroom needs, but they understood that they were more comfortable than the many people working in the office. .

You may be wondering how this title can be true. How can I trust students who struggle at home? Who have access to their parents’ firearms, who feel they have no one on their side, who are so angry with blind rage that they would come into my high school, and destroy it and the people I love forever? Here’s how.

The superintendent at the time for whatever reason had heard that it would be best to make staff and teachers come back as soon as possible. “Normalcy needs to be established,” he said. He had contacted the many other schools who had gone through similar code red situations, and they recommended this. 

It happened on a Wednesday. They gave us one day off and made all adults and students come back on Friday. We were to come back and run classes as normal. 

Our beloved leader was murdered, our principal was in the hospital trying to heal from bullet wounds, and we were to come back a day later and teach students. Students were expected to learn. Could this be right? 

These poor kids were required to return to their five-hour prison the first thing on Friday.

As someone who loves her job, I was dumbfounded. I take my role as a teacher very seriously. How in the world was I supposed to pull it together enough to not only comfort these 27 students, but also get through a lesson without completely losing it? And I wasn’t even on the front lines. How would they expect anyone in that office to perform their daily duties? It was an asinine request that I still resent. 

But we showed up. Our eyes red, our hearts heavy, and our innocence and sense of security gone, we showed up and prepared to lead these young ladies and gentlemen.

I arrived with juice and donuts. The entire five hours we had been trapped in there, I had just wanted to feed them. There was no food in my room save for one granola bar. I offered to split it in 28 pieces, but we all elected to give it to one boy who could not take it anymore. 

When they filtered in on Friday, there was a somber silence. They ate their food and sat in their seats, and prepared to listen to a statement all teachers were to read verbatim. I couldn’t quite make it through without crying. I couldn’t or wouldn’t say the part about the shooter because I wasn’t that strong, but I got through it. It was creative writing, so they then reflected in their journals. We were 15 minutes into a very long day.

As I let them write, one student brought a piece of paper up to me. She nodded wordlessly, gave me a hug, and then sat down. As I opened it, I read a poem of comfort from her to me. Another student came up to me—the very same that needed that granola bar—and gave me a box of granola bars and a note of thanks from his mother. Another student pulled up a picture of a neighboring school showing support for us. 

I learned that the entire student body—ours is about 2,300—showed up outside our school doors before school, and they all marched in together. As a family, they marched through those doors arm and arm, shoulder to shoulder, innocence to innocence, and they entered their school as if to take back what evil tried to steal from them. What we lost on that horrible Wednesday, these students fought to bring back on Friday. 

The educators were witnesses to the most beautiful display of kindness. We didn’t need to be prepared to save them that day. Our students saved us.

On a day—the only day—that I showed up to school unsure of my ability to lead, my leaders came in the form of students. The love, the forgiveness, the family that showed up on that Friday has never left me. I still have my poem. I still have my note of thanks that was so unnecessary. I still look out onto my classroom each day and see faces of promise and kindness. I know, because of those students, that evil did not win. 

Hate gave way to kindness. Youth does that. It saves us from the cruelty and damage of darkness. The most tragic event in my life knocked me back far enough to see, really see, the power of young people.