The beginning of class — once marked by the chime of a school bell — is now commenced with a ritual locking of doors.
As students returned to school less than 24 hours after a mass shooting claimed the lives of their peers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the atmosphere of anxiety hovers over each and every classroom.
It was no different at Dreyfoos School of the Arts on Thursday.
Before looking for your assigned seat, you may glance to the storage closet, the alcove behind the teacher’s desk, wherever you’re supposed to go if that Code Red announcement blares over the loudspeakers. When a textbook falls from the desk to the floor, students are already halfway there.
A lot of us remember very clearly the first mass shooting that seared its way in our consciousness. For a handful in my graduating class of 2018, their first parental talk about gun violence came after the Virginia Tech Massacre that claimed the lives of 32 people in 2007. For us, this was first grade, or kindergarten.
Some didn’t get this talk until they were well into high school after the shooting at Pulse Nightclub just three hours north of our high school. For me, it was Sandy Hook.
I knew about mass shootings, as did everyone else at 12 years old, but this was the first time I watched one unfold on the news with the rest of America. As many Americans may remember exactly where they were when they heard about 9/11, I remember coming home from the bus stop and being immediately pulled into the arms of my mother who explained to me in careful, but explicit words what had happened before I could see it on TV.
Closing my eyes, I can remember opening the front door like it was yesterday. This was the day I realized that being a student in America was not and may not ever be safe.
Dreyfoos School of the Arts is known for its vibrant student body. An arts magnet school that I’m more than lucky to attend, it’s impossible to walk around the school without running into someone shooting a film, singing a song, or occasionally pirouetting down the hallway. Yes, it is very close to High School Musical. The hallway at Dreyfoos is never empty.
Students breathe life into this campus every day with this bustle of activities whether they’re a theater major practicing a monologue outside their class, or just a wanderer skipping their math period. Someone is always there.
On Thursday, our campus gasps for air through the locked doors and covered windows of those same hallways.
Walking through my arts building on this day after the Parkland massacre, there is not only no one to be found, but there’s no song, no intense conversation, no anything. Nothing but the moment of silence we took during morning announcements that never seemed to end.
I think about what I would text my parents if it happened. A student next to me has letters saved on her phone to copy and paste to her mother, father, sister, in case she ever has to send them.
In a Code Red, do you tell them that you’re okay for the time being, that you’re hiding, and leave it at that? Or do you say something that you’d be content with being your final words to your family? Today, this is what students are asking themselves.
Even as my fellow seniors and I bite our nails waiting for college admission emails to arrive, this is what we are asking ourselves. Walking into each and every class of the school day, we find the nearest exit before we take out a pen.
The students of America are tired. Already exhausted by the daunting student debt we all prepare to take on, the massive expectations put onto our shoulders to get into even the most basic universities, we are now on a constant high alert in the one place that should be safe.
We wonder what will happen if a shooter came during lunch, throwing all our classroom safety protocols to the wind. We wonder what will happen if we’re in the bathroom when someone opens fire. We wonder if our parents will survive if we don’t come home from school that day, or if they’ll go down with us.
This fear cripples us. This fear drains us. This fear almost makes it hard to be furious with an uncaring and unfeeling government that values guns over the lives of its children, so we find ourselves crying when we want to scream, breaking down when we want to stand up.
Emily Pacenti is a senior at Dreyfoos School of the Arts.