I teach high school, so I'm used to students not following directions, whether by choice or by chance. Most Americans I know over the age of 30 claim to have attended school in a Golden Age when kids always did what they were told. But the times I remember when students complied with staff requests most quickly were in the late 1990s, and these were emphatically not the "good old days."
Between the fall of 1997 and April 1999, the airwaves were filled with news about recent school shootings and speculations about the next. The names of the towns and schools became coded references for domestic terrorism committed by disturbed young white men who reacted to real or imagined offenses with weaponry: Pearl, Miss.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Paducah, Ky.; Springfield, Ore.; Columbine.
In the Jonesboro incident, the two shooters pulled a fire alarm and shot people as they left the building. A teacher died to protect a student; I was asked if I would do the same. The panic on my students' faces during the next fire drill was palpable. Prior notice had been given about the drill, but students were only slightly pacified by the announcement that I would go first.
The April 20, 1999, attack on Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo., was different from those that had preceded it. Whereas young women had been targeted in almost all of the others (which few people recognize), this assault claimed the lives of male and female students and a male teacher. The siege went on for hours, and was reported by a variety of media as it was taking place. It was later said that the attack may have been a twisted commemoration of Hitler's birthday.
By April 30, the anniversary of Hitler's death, threats had been issued at dozens of high schools across the country, including mine. Some students stayed home. Our school went into a near-lockdown mode; students were not allowed in the hallways during classes, teachers were locking doors once classes began, and there was additional monitoring of the corridors between classes. Students and staff were on edge, and students seemed to realize that they needed to trust the staff to take care of them. They did what we asked.
The day was rather quiet, but tension was still strong as the bell rang to begin the last class. The last few students were scurrying into classrooms when I saw the only example of disobedience that day. A young woman and a young man resisted the attempts of their teacher and me to shoo them inside the perceived safety of the classroom.
Instead, about 10 feet from the doorway, in the nearly vacant hallway, they began to dance. With solemnity and grace, they began to waltz. Their dance was a tribute to the fallen, an act of resistance against terror, a stately act of rebellion and sorrow and affection. Their dance went beyond the two young people to hold us all, reminding us that connection is more powerful than fear.
It is my hope that tonight, someone is dancing in Blacksburg, Va.