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Opinion: Learning to survive in an American classroom

I spent many of my formative school years in the U.S., where safety drills for hurricanes and anything more sinister were the norm. And sometimes when I did have to hide under my desk, it wasn't a drill. As more school shootings are reported, I wonder what those classroom experiences really taught.
Inside view of school classroom.(1)
"The year before I began middle school, when I was 10, helicopters flew overhead on their way to that school. A student had killed another student in the bathroom."

Some details in this article may be distressing to readers.

As the American news reports yet another fatal mass shooting at a school, this time in Texas, the stories are truly awful, gut wrenching and all too familiar. 

When I was a kid, I spent most of my elementary school years in American schools. For Grade 2 I lived in New Hampshire, and then Miami, Florida, until the end of Grade 7. They were formative years, and since then I’ve found myself wondering exactly what I learned in those classrooms. 

I remember the safety drills we would practice, and how similar the drills were whether a hurricane was approaching or something more sinister: Turn off the lights. Hide under your desk, away from any windows. Don’t make a sound. Never open the door. 

I remember being in third grade, in a school with outdoor hallways, when a man who was not allowed to be near any children was reported on school grounds. I was eight years old.

The year before I began middle school, when I was 10, helicopters flew overhead on their way to that school. A student had killed another student in the bathroom. As the closest elementary school, we went into lockdown. We were terrified, even though we had been training for such a moment. It was only my age that prevented me from being in the school when the murder happened. (I was the same age as many of the students who were killed in Uvalde, Texas, this week.) I would later get in trouble for telling another neighbourhood kid about the attack, but I didn’t know it wasn’t appropriate information for children — I was a child, too. 

When I began attending the middle school of 2,000 kids the next year, it was with the student ID number and photo we always wore around our necks, walking through metal detectors. The lockers were permanently locked so no one could hide weapons inside. A student in one of my classes was named on a hit list full of graphic, disturbing ways another student planned on killing his classmates. 

Of course, my childhood in the U.S. wasn’t all memories of indirect violence. But it did take a long time to come to terms with how normal it seemed at the time. My education in America has had a lasting impact on the way I see the world, and a view on gun violence that has unfortunately only been reaffirmed. 

Since those days, too many more students have died in American schools. No classroom safety drills or preparations can prevent fatal attacks without the necessary gun reform. Life or death shouldn’t come down to luck.

So why am I writing this in a local Canadian newspaper? We are inundated with American news, and to have an emotional reaction to the worst of it is human. For some of us, it will be a reaction from personal experiences. It may remind us of parts of our own society where we can advocate for change. 

Now, I almost always cry when another school shooting story is reported, even as someone whose job often involves reporting grim news. I remember feeling like a helpless kid, full of fear, learning how to hide under my desk. As I sit at a desk now to write this, I wonder: Have the policymakers finally learned their lesson?

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