I began teaching in 2000. As the rise of school violence mirrored my teaching trajectory, I began receiving more and more training on how to keep my students safe.
I was told to lock the doors. Move students away from windows. Be silent. Check your email. I learned the trick where you slide a chair leg through the door handle to keep out whatever nightmare might be behind it. This became the norm for myself and thousands of other teachers across the United States. Not only were we overseeing class lists, school supplies and math, we were also constantly readying ourselves for tragedy.
In 2018, a local news station was looking for teachers to participate in a school shooter simulation. Though I was adamantly against arming teachers, I jumped at the opportunity. I figured I should get some experience in order to learn more about what I already knew was a terrible proposition.
After the reporter and I exchanged a few messages on Facebook, I was offered a spot in the simulator training. But first I needed the approval of my school administration. It was not easily given. My principal had to ask the board for permission and I had to answer specific questions about the focus of the story. I knew the school didn’t want to look bad. Surprisingly, all of my colleagues were supportive of my decision, though there was a range of emotions about the training. A school shooting is obviously a scenario that none of us wants to experience or have to prepare for, but because they continue to happen over and over again in this country, we must face our fears. What other choice do we have? I wanted to find a way to channel some of that fear into something productive, even if that simply meant knowing for a fact that arming teachers wasn’t the solution to our national crisis.
On the day of the training I showed up to a large nondescript building in a business park just a few miles from my apartment. I was buzzed in and stood awkwardly in the lobby with five other people. I was nervous and found myself constantly wringing my hands so no one would see how much they were already shaking. We smiled and nodded at each other, but tension in the entryway was palpable. Finally we were ushered into a huge room with lots of floor-to-ceiling screens, computers and guns. It felt like walking into a scene from some high-tech crime show. The fact that there were also cameras from the news station filming us added to how surreal this experience was.
That was our first direction. It shouldn’t have been too scary, since these guns were specially modified to work with the computers and screens. It was like an incredibly expensive video game. But it was still overwhelming. I had never held a gun before. It was very heavy in my hand ― on purpose they told me, to make it feel as real as possible. And though I had never shot a gun, I hit all of my targets during the first round, which required firing at the kind of simple silhouettes I’d seen used at shooting ranges. The big burly man who was overseeing our training gave me a high-five.
We leveled up to Round 2, which involved “suspects” on the screen in front of us. They told us they use this particular simulation for police training. The various scenarios we saw play out on the screen were synced with police scanner audio. We had to decide if what we were seeing and hearing was a threat. My scenario involved a traffic stop. The suspect began exiting the vehicle with a weapon, another gun. I made the “right” choice and shot the suspect before I was killed. Some of the other teachers weren’t so lucky. I saw the face of one of my fellow teachers fall when they accidentally shot an unhoused “suspect.” Any excitement that I had felt from the rush of hitting all of my targets during the first round had faded as the simulation became more and more lifelike.
Finally, it was time for the school shooting simulation. We were shown the “set” ― three walls were covered in screens and the fourth side of the room was open. We were then somberly filed into another room where we waited for our turn in the simulator. No one spoke. One by one, we would be called in to run the simulation and then we’d move into a waiting room. I let two other teachers go before me so that I could try to get my head around what I was about to do. Then my anxiety got the best of me and I volunteered to go next.
Mr. Burly gave me noise canceling headphones and reminded me of how I’d been taught to hold the gun. He told me the simulation was three minutes long, looked in my eyes, and told me to breathe.
It’s hard to put into words what I experienced after that because it happened so quickly. The first thing I remember was the noise, which despite my headphones, was staggering. I heard screaming, the popping of a gun that wasn’t mine, and chaos everywhere around me.
I had to make my way down a “hallway” to a school library where the shooter was located. Everywhere I looked I saw unbelievable horror. There was blood splashed across lockers and suddenly, when I looked down, I saw a wounded student. They reached out to me for help but I couldn’t do anything. I had to pass them by. Students were running everywhere across the screens and it confused me.
I finally made it to the library but I was crying too hard to see the shooter. Like every other teacher that day, I was killed.
Holding the gun limply by my side, I immediately broke down. Sobs racked my body as the burly man and the reporter rushed over to me. “It’s just a simulation,” they kept telling me, as if it would soothe me. The air left my body as I tried to picture my students, my co-workers, and their families in the simulation. But I couldn’t do it. The pain was too great. I felt heavy and drained.
Back in the waiting room, there were varying shades of emotion and activity. Those who had gone earlier and had some time to process what they’d experienced eventually became more talkative and animated. Maybe it was the adrenaline? Then every time a new teacher would enter, the room grew quiet to respect the person’s grief, but moments later our voices rose again.
During our interviews with the reporter, our emotions vacillated between incredible sadness and anger. We said that what we had just experienced was not included in our job description ― nor should it ever be. The reporter pointed out if Republican-proposed plans to arm teachers moved forward, we’d receive training, guns and resources to protect our students. I immediately thought of my classroom and the supplies I supplemented with my own money. I thought of how the state I worked in was ranked the worst in the country for teachers’ salaries. “With what money?!” flew out of my mouth in response. There weren’t even enough funds to pay educators a fair wage.
The reporter then asked us what the worst part of the simulator training was. For me, it was having to leave the injured behind. It was not being able to help when my profession is literally helping. My intuition that arming me wouldn’t save my precious students was confirmed. This was a ridiculous idea and the people who thought it up obviously know nothing about the reality of teachers’ lives or the horrors we could face at any moment.
The reporter put together an amazing two-part package that aired a few weeks later. Though promos played constantly the week before it was shown and my friends and family called and wrote to tell me they’d seen me, I ignored most of the ads because they were mini-flashes of what I never wanted to think about again, much less see.
When the package finally aired, I watched it with my husband, who is my rock ― and I certainly needed him that night. The reporter showed, with the help of all of the teachers who participated that day, why educators should never be asked to use a weapon in hopes of keeping their students alive. He got it right ― he got it so right. The story left me crumpled on my bed crying because it was so painful and so powerful, but also because I knew it wouldn’t make a difference.
Too many politicians don’t care about teachers. They won’t listen to us when we tell them what we need to help our students succeed. They won’t listen to us when we tell them what we need to keep them alive. It’s certainly not placing a gun in my hand.
Now, we’re struggling to deal with the aftermath of the devastating mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Once again, I am crumpled on my bed as I sob for everyone in that town. For everyone who was murdered and everyone who is mourning the loss of someone they loved. For Eva Mireles, the teacher who was so like me, with roughly the same teaching experience and only a year apart in age. Her students were just like the fourth grade students I’ve taught for many years.
I can’t bear to watch the updates that have been pouring in all week. I scroll right past the articles. My rock turned off the television last night as the news was about to come on. Still, I heard that Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz attended a vigil for the victims. How dare they! It’s rubbing salt in the wound. They’ve helped to loosen gun laws in Texas in recent years! Their appearance at the memorial was just a pit stop on their way to seeking more power and money via their messaging that more guns are always the answer.
But I see through them. And I know more guns are not the answer. I know arming teachers is ludicrous and the mere suggestion of it is offensive to me and every other educator who works tirelessly in hopes of seeing our students succeed. In hopes of seeing our students graduate alive! How sick is it that we even have to worry they might not make it to graduation because our political leaders won’t protect them.
They can keep their thoughts and prayers because they are useless. We need to deal with the real problem ― the outrageous number of guns in this country and the few restrictions on them that allow just about anyone to get their hands on one.
How much more can we take? When will we finally say no more? Because it’s all I have been saying over and over again.
No more. No more. No more. No more. No more. No more. No more. No more.
Calandra Rubin finally settled in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She enjoys art, collecting llamas and advocating for children.