On Thursday, we have a tornado drill. This is the one where the girls must crouch on their knees, arms overhead, in a space that does not have windows. It’s generally one of the fastest drills we do, much less scary that the Lockdown drills which we practice fervently, hoping that familiarity would help us all if a shooter came into our school.
When the drill concludes, I find the Kindergarten heading back to class from the restroom where they sheltered. One child’s eyes brim with tears. Her teacher explains, “Octavia thought it was a real drill; she wanted her daddy.”
I nod, sympathetically. “You go with the other girls,” I offer to the teacher. “Octavia and I will sit here for a minute.”
Octavia takes my hand. Trusting, her lip trembling, tears spilling. Maybe my sympathy has made it worse.
“Tell me,” I say gently. We sit. I breathe, waiting, looking at her golden hair, remembering my three dark haired children—our Kindergarten daughter, on 9/11, clutching a young friend of ours like a limpet when we arrived home on that horrific day. Fear is real.
“I thought there was a tornado,” she begins, “and once I saw one on TV—“ She gasps a little, tears spilling. “And it was really scary and I wanted my daddy to come and get me because I was scared, but it’s not real?” She scrutinizes the sky behind us suspiciously. It is grey, but without any twister.
“It wasn’t real,” I say. “It was practice.”
“So we would know just what to do?”
“Exactly. So we would know just what to do. Like fire drills. Do you remember fire drills.”
She nods. Her nose begins to run.
“When we have fire drills, we practice what we would do if there was a fire here at school.” I slip my handkerchief from the wristband of my watch and wipe her tears and then her nose. She is brave and she is tiny.
“It wasn’t real?” she quavers again.
“No, it wasn’t real. But I understand why it was scary. It’s a loud noise over the loud speaker and you didn’t know it was coming, and it is sort of silly that you have to sit in a little ball with your arms over your head.”
She smiles tremulously, but it’s a smile, so I keep talking.
“We all want you to be safe at school, Octavia. Your teachers want that and your daddy and I want that.”
“And that’s why we practice?”
“Yes. Ready to go back to class?”
“I needed my daddy.”
“I know you did, but Daddy will be glad that you are safe.”
Taking my hand, she walked across the hall into her classroom and rejoined her class. I whisper to her teacher, check to be sure she is okay, soothed by the comforting routines of her class and slip away.
I tucked my soggy hankie back into my watchband and walked down the corridor towards my office.
I wish we did not have to have so many drills, so many reasons that make five year olds feel afraid, that make Headmistresses feel afraid, too. When I became a teacher, I did not understand what it meant to hold a child’s fears. When I became a Headmistress, I had no idea that part of the job would be holding fear for the whole community and finding a path forward despite our collective apprehension.
Thank you, Octavia, for our moments together on the radiator, for reminding me what it is to be a teacher—to take the time to listen, to comfort a child, to wipe her tears, to be fully present—a few authentic loving moments in a day filled with other kinds of obligations. Your little face swims before me: earnest, emotions flickering across your eyes, full of trust. I wish I could take away your fear.