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A Lesson I Didn’t Want to Teach

Thursday, July 28, 2022

By Wendy Kennar

I was a fourth-grade teacher in Los Angeles when I first heard the news about Sandy Hook during a staff appreciation luncheon. Within the span of a few minutes, our principal passed out snowflake ornaments and I learned that six-year-olds had been gunned down in their classroom.

I couldn’t comprehend it; it didn’t seem real. It sounded like something from an awful movie, not something that could happen in real life.

But it had.

The next day, I returned to my classroom, room 7 on the second floor of the school’s main building. We didn’t start the day as usual, with a journal prompt on the whiteboard for my students to complete while I took attendance and greeted each child individually.

Instead, we talked about the events from the day before, and what that meant for us, our class, and our school.

I had a hard time keeping it together. I was not just a teacher to these students, I was also a mother to a four-year-old son. Other mothers were mourning their children that day. My kids (I always referred to my students as kids) had questions, but I wasn’t confident I had the answers.

“Could something like that happen here?”

“Are we safe?”

“What would we do if a shooter came on to campus?”

We started with the facts, what they had seen and heard on the news. My kids made connections to the first graders at our school, the little ones downstairs. Some of my kids’ siblings were in the first grade.

We talked about our school, our procedures for visitors. We reviewed our drills: fire, earthquake, lockdown. When I was a student, we only had fire and earthquake drills. One generation later, students had lockdown drills because of a very real possibility. Columbine. Sandy Hook. It was real; lockdowns were necessary.

We usually left our classroom doors open, but I assured my students I would close the door at the start of a lockdown signal. We would do what we could to stay safe inside our classroom.

“What if someone with a gun got into our room?” one of my students asked.

“What’s my number-one job?” I asked them.

Several voices called out, “To keep us healthy and safe.”

Each year, on the first day of school, I told my kids that my number-one job was to keep them healthy and safe. Teaching them was my number-two job.

“That’s right. So I would do whatever I had to do to keep you all healthy and safe,” I said.

One of my students, a child who didn’t always demonstrate the best behavior or make the best choices, asked, “What if a shooter aimed a gun at us?”

“I’d stand in front of you,” I said.

Remembering the conversation still brings tears to my eyes. I heard gasps. A few of my kids brought their hands to cover their mouths.

“What about Ryan?”

Ryan is my son. My kids knew about him because he had visited me at school and his pictures were on my desk at the back of the room.

“Ryan has me at home,” I said. “When I’m at school, I’m here for you. You’re my first priority.”

It broke my heart to say those words. To say out loud that my career might mean I wouldn’t come home to my own young son at the end of the school day.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot since hearing the news of the horror in Uvalde. More lives lost. More little children, who were waiting for Tooth Fairy visits, who would most likely prefer the red popsicle to the yellow one, who hadn’t yet learned to tie their own shoes.

I’m no longer a teacher. After a twelve-year career, I retired in 2013 due to health reasons.

But I have to have different conversations with my son, Ryan, who is now fourteen. He’s gone to school with the knowledge that bad people have gotten onto school campuses and done terrible, unspeakable things.

Years ago, Ryan asked, “Could that happen at my school?” One of his elementary school teachers had referenced Sandy Hook when their school practiced a lockdown drill.

I didn’t know how to answer him.

“At every school, the job of everyone there is to keep all the kids healthy and safe,” I said. “I know everyone at your school would do everything they could to keep you and your friends healthy and safe.”

What else was there to say?


Wendy Kennar is a freelance writer who has lived her entire life within the same zip code. She was a public school teacher for twelve years until a chronic medical condition made it necessary to leave her teaching career. She is constantly amazed and inspired by her young son. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies including the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, United Teacher, L.A. Parent, Mamalode.com, RoleReboot.org, Breath and Shadow, and XOJane.com to name a few. In addition, she is a regular contributor at MomsLA.com. She writes at wendykennar.com.