Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
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Their school, like one in a picture book, sits on top of a hill. On one side, there’s a grassy slope and beyond that, woods. On the other side is the playground with long slides—some covered like tunnels, some open—that make use of the hillside for their height and length. There are swings, too, and when the children are in them, they feel like birds flying high over the hill. They think of the song about the robin redbreast they are learning for the spring concert: “Her wings she was spreading to soar faraway, then resting a moment seemed sweetly to say ‘oh happy, how happy the world seems to be.’” Passing the playground this first day back, the children wonder about the concert, about recess—will they have it today? Is it wrong to want to play, to want the wind through their hair as they swing?

The children needn’t worry. By this point in the twenty-first century, a protocol exists, a blueprint, if you will. It is believed that a quick return to routine is important, so there will be recess today. The spring concert is another matter.

Usually, the students walk to school in clusters and packs, dragging colorful totes and bags, bulky backpacks. It’s a neighborhood school, after all. But today the parents accompany their children on foot or drive them. There is a long line of cars in the circular drive in front of the school. The parents have been instructed to keep their goodbyes brief, breezy, but it’s not that simple. They are compelled to give another kiss, to bring their children to their breasts for another hug. And the children, sensing the adults’ hesitancy, have last minute questions: Who is picking me up? What time? Can we get a gerbil? Police officers flank the entrance. Some hold signs: You’ve got this! We heart you, Hillside! There are lots of hearts, as many as Valentine’s Day, Hazel notes, leaving her mother’s grip. There are police dogs, too, seated at attention by the officers. Later that day, each class will get a visit from Harry, the therapy dog, a silky, doe-eyed golden retriever.

Inside the main entrance, metal detectors have been installed. Students are instructed to hand over their backpacks and lunch boxes for inspection, and then, surprise! They are each given a new backpack—clear vinyl ones that smell new and plasticky, of promise like the big toy store by the mall. In go their Hello Kitty pencil cases, their folders and notebooks, rulers, erasers, chapstick, fidget toys.

The school was built in the 1960s and its interior reflects the hopeful pedagogical vision of that time—children benefited from space and openness, collaboration and experimentation, it was believed, so the classrooms opened up to each other on either side, and instead of solid walls there were folding partitions that could be opened and closed. In more recent decades, as pedagogy has changed and shifted, (and let’s face it, American test scores plummeted) walls were added, corridors constructed so the school is a maze, difficult to navigate. Already, plans are being drawn up for a new school, one with a simple layout, and many well-labeled options for egress.

For now, this building will have to do. Everything has been cleaned and scoured. The floors have been waxed and buffed to a high shine as they are at the beginning of each school year and again after winter break. The double doors of the music room’s entrance have been walled over. Maintenance has done an impressive job, the second-grade teacher, Miss Herman thinks. The paint is the same pale blue as the rest of the hallway. If you didn’t know a classroom was there—blond wood shelves, risers for chairs, a mural of New York State’s music greats on the rear wall—you’d never guess. The entryway smells of fresh paint and underneath that, paste and the sharp tinny smell of steam table green beans.

There are two ways in which Miss Herman is not suited to her profession. Her great height, for one. She is over six feet tall, which requires near gymnastic bending and crouching to see eye to eye with her charges. Then there is her preference for quiet. She’d been a bookish only child of two school teachers; her game of choice was playing school with her dolls. She never considered another career. She wonders why no one mentioned the exuberance and clamor of children, or suggested this might be a challenge for her. Her students wiggle and squirm. Movement and sound are their natural modes of being. They spin and run and fall and leap up. They touch their toes simply because they can. They like to pick up the smallest child in the class, carry her around. Miss Herman has grown accustomed to the hubbub after seven years of teaching. Still, she loves her students best when they are hard at work, their heads bent over their desks in silent concentration.

Today, the children are subdued; their line orderly, their hands to themselves. They examine their possessions in their clear backpacks. One child shakes hers like a snow globe, watches the loose change settle at the bottom.

In Miss Herman’s classroom, the desks that are no longer needed have been cleaned out and removed to the district’s warehouse. Her classroom feels empty, too big, so she’s created a reading nook, brought in several beanbag chairs and a round, braided rug. The bulletin board in this corner reads “April Showers Bring May Flowers!” Later today, they will make flowers from watercolored coffee filters, pipe cleaners, bright tissue and crepe paper. Each child will “plant” their blossom beneath her banner.

As her students file into her classroom, Miss Herman can’t help but remember them filing out, their eyes squeezed shut, as instructed, their hands on the shoulders of the student in front of them, trusting the adults in front to lead them to safety. Miss Herman has to shake her head, to rid herself of that image—and the others that follow.


It is referred to as “the incident.” In memorandum and public announcements and in interviews with journalists, school officials and police have modeled this language for the families. The media, naturally, prefers other words: massacre, killing spree, tragedy. The experts—who knew such a specialty existed?—call it an “intentional mass casualty event.” The parents can’t remember this phrase, its icy abstraction, no matter how many times they hear it.

What do the children call it? The parents try to get their children to talk, but they hardly speak of it after the tearful, frenzied reunion in the school parking lot. This has the effect of making the parents feel awkward around their children, hesitant. They hug them too tight, too often, resort to old nicknames and terms of endearment: Beanie, Choo-choo, Sweet pea. The children’s faces seem changed—older, haggard, as if they are their own grandfathers or great-grandfathers, who returned home from their generations’ wars and refused to speak of what they saw there. Weary stoics, the children hunch their small shoulders as if against cold. They know things their parents cannot.

For the children, this time after the incident is stretched out and wobbly. How long have they been home? Days melt into each other. For a while, Hazel is allowed to stay in her pajamas and watch movies on TV as if she is ill. Her mother has been especially solicitous, too, asking if Hazel needs anything—chocolate milk? A popsicle? Does she want to talk? It’s alright to cry, she says. In the utility closet, her thighs clammy with pee, Hazel had gone through that week’s spelling words: gladly, proudly, softly, loudly, care, echo, case, simple. Silently, she spelled them out two times. When she finished, she started over. She knows those words well, can use each one correctly in a sentence, but she cannot think now how to answer her mother.

The parents wonder how they will be able to send their children back. It’s like boarding a plane wreck and expecting to reach your destination. Or, is it more like flying after a recent crash—safer because of increased vigilance? There is some talk of homeschooling. One family is making plans to move to Canada.

It’s only at night that the parents feel they are of any help. The children wake, stumble to their parents’ beds, snuggle in between them, and drift off thus bolstered. The parents know this is the only safety they can provide and that it is insufficient. They watch their children sleep, the soft flicker of dreams beneath their eyelids, their chests rising and falling, the delicate knit of rib beneath the skin. Such beauty. It could break your heart.


In the horrible span of time when the parents have been alerted to the incident, but don’t yet know about their children, there is much wailing and crying and shouting. Naked, awful sounds. Keening. Each minute waiting for information feels endless, thick and sludgy. In the parking lot and in the playground, parents pace or lean against the playground equipment, jabbing at their phones. They can barely speak to one another. They must concentrate completely on keeping their children alive in there; this requires all their focus. And when, finally, their children are returned to them, they clutch them, hold them up to study their faces, their sweet limbs, inspect each hand, every finger as if their children are newly born.

Leaving the school, their children in their arms, they can’t look back at the other parents still waiting and weeping.


It is ten thirty on a Wednesday morning in April. Miss Herman’s aide has taken half the second-graders to music, while the others are here for language arts. These are her advanced readers, seated with crossed legs in a semicircle before her, and they are just beginning to talk about Mouse Tales, when Miss Herman hears the shots. Three, no, four shots. Don’t be silly, she tells herself. It’s a car backfiring on Stewart Road or equipment being unloaded for mowing the grounds. But then there are more shots—that’s what they are, most certainly. She tells her students to put down their books. She’s seated close to the classroom door, so she lunges for it, locking it swiftly. She pulls the filing cabinet in front of the door, blocking its window. “Help me,” she says and the students—all of them attentive and alert—help her shove her desk against the file cabinet. “Ok,” she tells them, “into the utility closet.” She is surprised by the strange calm of her voice, like a recording she has summoned. The children crowd in, eyes wide. Miss Herman turns out the closet light, bends herself into a crouch. “Be very still,” she says, “don’t make a peep.” The children do as she says, though immediately she smells urine, feels it wet and tacky beneath her shoes.

After today, all the school’s closets will be outfitted with a lockdown bucket containing bandages, gauze, latex gloves, Smarties, kitty litter for an emergency toilet, but for now there is nothing but an old box fan, the vacuum cleaner, some rolls of newsprint. In the dark, Miss Herman reaches for her students, counts ten silky heads. She thinks of the music room where her other students are, so near the school’s entrance, the closet there crammed with instrument cases and music stands. Where will they hide? Clare, Sylvie, Max, Jax, Fatima, Jordan, Allie, Melissa, Timothy, Sebastian. How she wishes she had not split the class today. Why hadn’t she instead assigned reading partners across the two groups and kept all her students here in room twenty-two? She can picture them, all together, as if she’s watching a movie, their heads bent towards each other, their fingers moving across the pages, back and forth. She knows, of course, that time moves in one direction, but she keeps wishing for an unspooling, for retrieval.

All year, Miss Herman tried the many ways she knows for obtaining quiet. She would hold her fingers up above her head in a peace sign and wait for the students to notice and grow still. She reminded them to use their “inside voices,” “to put on their listening ears.” Stickers, then M&Ms were awarded to those who cooperated. When these efforts failed, when a movie had to be stopped because of squabbling, when answers were shouted out of turn, when they wriggled and chattered and poked rather than lining up in an orderly fashion, she had asked, “What would it take for you to be quiet?” She now knows the answer.

From the corridor, there are more shots—louder, closer—and shouting, and then after some time, the shriek and wail of sirens, time sliced deftly, permanently into before and after.  

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