‘It’s really there! A pistol in his left hand. He’s showing it to the girl sitting next to him. Be cool! I don’t think he realizes I can see what he’s doing. Stay cool and think fast and figure out what to do next.’
What would you do?
What do I do next? This all happened back in the early 90‘s while I was substitute teaching at an inner city school that I taught at regularly. I liked working there. I was brought up in a big city (the city of big shoulders) and I had learned two important lessons early on: to always watch my back and that safety is always relative. Remember, the schools at Sandy Hook or Columbine weren’t in the hood. I always felt relatively safe. But even bold fellows like me can know terror and that gun terrified me.
It was an old style classroom in an older school. There were doors at opposite ends of the room which was laid out in a series of old fashioned traditional rows of desks. I was standing at the front center of the room giving the day’s assignment when right down that center aisle I saw this boy take a pistol out of his left pocket and show it to the girl sitting next to him. It shows how much attention he was paying to the lesson that he didn’t seem to notice me looking at him!
I had to play it cool and act as if I hadn’t seen anything amiss. I had students to protect. I casually strolled to my left continuing to give the assignment while I weighed my options. There was no intercom to call for backup. If I ran from the room, El Pistolero would realize his secret was discovered and he might open fire or run from the room to do God knows what in the halls or elsewhere. It seemed to me that my best option was to keep the room calm until I could go into the hall and call for backup without raising suspicion.
Thus began a deadly game of ‘Chicken’ with El Pistolero playing the innocent student and me playing the clueless teacher appearing to be oblivious to what’s going on in the classroom. I continued giving the day’s assignment. Once I finished talking, I circled the room ‘to make sure everyone was on task’ and once I was convinced the room was calmly working, I wandered into the hall. As soon as I was out of sight of the doorway I frantically waved down the security guard at the end of the hall and told her about the gun in my classroom and to call the police. Then I wandered back into the room as carefree as I could manage, all the while hoping no one could hear the pounding of my tell-tale heart.
After an eternity of about 10 or 15 minutes (didn’t Shirley Temple once say, “A minute of waiting is like a century to the hopeful.”?) security came into the room and asked me to go into the hall. There was my backup: two plainclothes detectives, two uniformed officers and several members of school security. The female officer in uniform came up to me and asked, “Are you the one who saw the boy with the gun?” I said, “Yes ma’am.” She adjusted her gun-belt. She checked her handcuffs and mace. She adjusted her kevlar bulletproof vest. Then she turned to me and said, “Now you go in and get him and bring him out here.” Say what?!?
I believe my reticence was understandable. But the officer explained that I was the only one who could identify the boy with the gun, so I had to go in. Of course by this time all the students knew the game was afoot so when I brought El Pistolero out into the hall he had no gun. The detectives angrily stormed into the room and shouted, “Okay! Either the person who is hiding the gun gives it up or we search all 40 of you!” There followed several tense minutes of mad-dogging and huffing and puffing but finally the girl who had been sitting next to our gunman opened her purse and gave up the gun.
You’d think this would be a happy ending but it wasn’t. One detective was almost apoplectic in his frustration, later shouting at the gunman, “A starter’s pistol! You got us all down here for a starter’s pistol?” I’m not sure what message he was trying to convey. But hey, it was the early 90’s, and I’m sure school security protocols and police interrogation techniques have evolved since then.
Two weeks later, I was walking down the hall of that same school when El Pistolero jumped in front of me and laughed saying, “Ha, ha! See, nothing happened. What you did didn’t matter. I got suspended for two weeks and now I’m back. So there!”
Unperturbed, I replied, “So what? I had no way of knowing if you posed a danger or not. I did what I did to protect the other kids in the class and I’ll do the same thing again if it might save a life!”