This is what it’s like to be a student in the age of school shootings

·5 min read
Ethan Hyman/

On a random Monday in 2007, my mom picked me and my sister up from school, like she always did. We started talking on the drive back, like we always did. I think I started sassing her, because I was 9 years old, and I always did.

She snapped back that she couldn’t deal with my attitude that day: an hour and a half away, a 23 year old gunman had murdered 32 people and wounded 17 at Virginia Tech.

I don’t blame her for getting upset with me: for years, we’d been going to Hokie football games on the weekends to tailgate with friends and spend time with my grandfather, who had gone to school there. Virginia Tech was our school. The Hokie Stone buildings and distant mountains were familiar backdrops.

I was almost two years old when two teenagers murdered 12 students and a teacher and injured 20 others at Columbine High School in Colorado. I grew up having lockdown drills in school. So did a lot of other people around my age. We remember the procedure: turning out the lights, hiding in a corner if your classroom didn’t have closets, trying to get the talkative kids to hush because we needed to act like it was real.

Imani Mosley was a sophomore at Enloe High School when the Columbine shooting happened. She told me this week about Wake County’s first active shooter drills, where they had all the students file out of the buildings and into a parking lot and field in the middle. She notes that it would have been difficult for emergency responders to get to them, but an ideal situation for a school shooter.

“We were all kind of there like cows in an open field, where we could be slaughtered,” Mosley says. They didn’t have another drill the rest of the time she was in school.

Sometimes, they aren’t drills.

We were supposed to have our eighth grade graduation on the last day of school in 2011. It was supposed to be my last time playing flute in the band. While we were in the auditorium waiting to line up, police officers got into a shooting with someone on a nearby property. They sent us all into the closets where we normally kept the folding chairs. One girl in my class, who had autism, was getting really upset. We didn’t know what was going on; neither did my parents. I asked my mom about it recently; she said they were getting information from people who had connections to the police department. It was my first real active shooter lockdown. It felt messy.

“I remember my teacher, who couldn’t have been past 35 or so at the time, being visibly upset and saying something along the lines of ‘I know I’m supposed to be the brave one, I’m sorry,’” Rob Lyerly, 26, said to me about a lockdown he went through in 7th grade in Winston-Salem, where a fugitive walked onto school grounds. “She had a child at the same school but in kindergarten at the time.”

I was in 10th grade when 20 children and six adults were murdered and two were injured at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The school stopped telling us that the lockdowns were drills. I started noticing myself jumping when doors slammed outside my chemistry classroom. I still do it.

Bailey Recktenwald’s elementary school in Durham called lockdowns “SMILE drills” (it was an acronym for something — she doesn’t remember what). The 24-year-old was in third grade the first time it wasn’t a drill: someone working on a power line had a tool that people thought looked like a gun. Her classroom was closest to the road — she remembers a man in SWAT gear coming in from a door that led outside to talk to her teacher.

“I think overall the drills are good, because it’s in our subconscious, but my first exposure to a real, real scare was when I was eight and it was really scary,” Recktenwald told me. “I don’t think we were truly processing what was going on.”

As a UNC student, the fear of violence felt common. There was a lockdown on campus my first year because of an incident at the ROTC building. There was a man who tried to bomb the Davie Poplar, whose legend is that if the tree falls, so will the school. There were armed white supremacists on campus after Silent Sam came down my senior year, and the university wouldn’t notify students.

Later that school year, a gunman walked into a UNC-Charlotte classroom, killing Ellis Parlier and Riley Howell, and injuring Drew Pescaro, Sean DeHart, Rami Al-Ramadhan and Emily Houpt.

Riley’s story has stayed with me. He was my age. He died while tackling the shooter, an act of bravery that saved lives. His family had him buried in a t-shirt and jean shorts, so he looked like himself in his coffin.

“He wasn’t even in a battle,” his mom, Natalie, said to The News & Observer in 2019. “He was in a class. And it’s transitioned into a classroom being a place where you’ve got to step up.”

We are the children your country has raised. We are angry. We are exhausted.

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