Short story winner: 'A Small Brown Box'
I don’t know why I’ve even bothered telling this story again– principals, officers, magistrates. They’ve finally given me a lawyer, but it looks like he’s on their side. Everyone’s on their side. I never had a chance. That’s how it’s been every day since I first walked through the doors of that building. No one cared how I felt, what I was good at. Just follow the rules and do what you’re told. I wish now that I had done what I really wanted to when I had the chance. I’m going to end up paying for it anyway. I can’t believe he’s still talking– I have to interrupt.
“Stop! You have no idea why this happened. I shouldn’t be here. I know that’s what they all say, but this is different, I swear.” I don’t know what else to say to him, he doesn’t understand.
“But the gun was in your possession, in your hands, pointed at him. According to witnesses you had personal problems with him, and you argued with each other every day.”
I see the contempt in his face when he says this. So I try again to make him see my side.
“This is all a mistake. I wasn’t going to shoot anyone. It’s just like every other day; I have no control over what happens in there. The bell rings and we start, the bell rings and we end. I can’t even go to the bathroom unless it fits into the schedule, and this is no different. My side of the story doesn’t matter at all.”
“So you were frustrated, you’d had all that you could take and decided it was time to turn the tables, exercise some real power.”
“No. That’s not how this happened at all.”
10:22 am- Room 135: Mr. Janey
So I’m just reading some blogs online while my students are working on a quiz when our principal interrupts class with an announcement. They never use the PA in the middle of class anymore, there’s just no need with phones, e-mail, and student runners. I knew something was wrong, and the odd content of that announcement. It would have been surreal, if I hadn’t recognized it. I was scared, but I knew that I couldn’t show it.
“You guys keep working on the quiz. I’m not really sure what that meant, but, I’m going to lock the door while I try to figure out what’s happening.”
One of my students paused and looked through me toward the door.
“So you mean there isn’t really a box waiting in the office.”
“I doubt it, Martin, but just keep working, and I’ll find out. This shouldn’t be a big deal.”
Returning to my desk after locking the door, I had no idea what to do. They repeated the announcement once more as I searched fruitlessly online. After several minutes, I suddenly remembered an old CD in my desk drawer. Several years ago, they distributed the teacher handbook on CD before they began posting it online. Fishing through dozens of old 3.5” floppy disks and CDs, I found it and slid it in the computer tray. A few moments later, I found what I was looking for:
In the event of an intruder or other threat within the building an administrator will announce the following over the PA system: ‘Teachers, a small brown box has been delivered to the front office. If this box belongs to you please contact the front office immediately.’ In the event of this announcement, please make sure that all students are cleared from the hallway immediately and lock all classroom doors. Instruct students to remain quiet and move away from doors and windows. Remain in the classroom until further directions are given.
“Alright class, this could be serious.”
A student with an awkward smile gestured with a pointed finger, “You mean like a gunman in the school or something.”
I could tell the joking attitude was a mask for the student’s anxiety.
“I don’t really know. It still might not be a big deal, but I’m not sure. It could be serious. But the door is locked, no one is getting in either way, so just sit tight and I promise I’ll let you know anything that I know.”
No sooner than I said it, the door jarred back and forth a few times. I slowly leaned my head against the door, quieting the class with my hand.
“Probably just an administrator checking doors. I can’t hear what they’re saying on the walkie-talkie, but somebody’s pretty worked up. I think this really is a big deal. But we’re safe”
So I lied a little. I wasn’t about to use the word gun. They were quiet, they were safe. A word like that could’ve sent them into all kinds of panic. So we sat, quietly. For the next twenty-five minutes, no one said a word.
10:22 am- Room 142: Mrs. Collins
They do the stupidest things here. I was right in the middle of my lesson, and this ridiculous announcement comes on. Immediately, someone in the class decided to give their analysis of the situation. “Mrs. Collins, that sounds strange. Is something going on?”
I still thought it was just incompetence at this point. “We’re so short-staffed these days, the principal is probably just filling in at the front desk and doesn’t have a clue how to do things. I’m sure someone was expecting a package, and he didn’t know what to do about it. Let’s continue.”
We read several more paragraphs and then another interruption by the PA: “Teachers, a small brown box has been delivered to the front office, I repeat, a small brown box has been delivered to the front office. If this box belongs to you, please contact the front office immediately.”
A student in the front row started flipping the pages of his book with his thumb. “Mrs. Collins, that was a little more than strange, he seemed a little nervous about something.”
“Sometimes this place just seems like a bad joke. Just sit tight, and I’ll check across the hall. Mr. Barrett will know what’s going on.”
No sooner than I step out of the door, I get yelled at in a whisper that I can barely hear over the chatter on a walkie-talkie. “Mrs. Collins, what are you doing, we’re in a lock-down.”
“Well, I would have appreciated knowing what was really going on, I was just coming out to see if Mr. Barrett had any idea what that crazy announcement meant.”
I made it halfway across the hall when our principal, Mr. Hunter, started running toward me. “No. No. No. Don’t go over there, that’s why we’re in the lock down! Something is going on in that room. We received an e-mail that someone in there has a gun and plans on using it.”
I was shocked. “We can’t just leave Mark in there, someone has to do something”
“The police have just arrived, but this situation is tricky, we’re not even sure how Mr. Barrett is involved in this, but someone in that room has a gun, and you and your students have to be behind a locked door immediately.” He placed a hand on my shoulder and gently nudged me toward my classroom.
So I returned. I locked the door, told my students that someone in the building had a gun, walked back to my desk, and cried. Mark was my friend. We sat in silence for the next twenty minutes.
10:22 am- Room 147: Mr. Plaster
Of all the classes to have when something like this happens! I couldn’t even make out the words over the PA the first time, so I just gave up on listening. We could barely hear the second announcement, but even over the mild roar of my students I knew what was happening. I didn’t even think that code was still in the book. I was on the committee that created it for the handbook ten years ago. We were working in the aftermath of Columbine and no one knew how to handle this stuff. I said all along that clear communication was necessary, but somehow everyone imagined a situation in which we wouldn’t want an intruder to know that we knew what was going on, especially if that intruder was one of our own students.
Any other class than this one. “Everyone listen. I said listen to me. I need everyone’s attention. Now! Didn’t anyone hear what they just said?”
One of my Einsteins paused his conversation to acknowledge me. “Yeah, somebody’s got a box, what’s that got to do with anything.”
“Kids, we could really be in danger now and I need for you to listen. Listen, now.”
I was just trying to keep them safe, and I get sass. “Why you gotta be yellin’ and all, you actin’ like this a invasion or something. And I ain’t no kid!’”
I realized my approach wasn’t working, so I tried to sound more reasonable. The fact that I thought reason would work is sign enough that I wasn’t thinking straight. “That announcement means there is an intruder in the building.”
The classroom tough guy stood up by his desk, puffing his chest out toward me. “Well, you ain’t gonna keep me in here to get shot down, we gotta go."
“Nick, we can’t, the safest place to be right now is here, behind…” I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth before the door burst open.
“Mr. Plaster, your door should be locked!”
I was so shaken I’d forgotten to even lock the door. Mr. Hunter whispered to me as I walked over to lock the door. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“I’ve got an idea.” I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to know exactly what was going on. “Could you please say something to these kids, there’s no way I’m going to keep them quiet through this.”
“Mr. Plaster, managing your classroom is not my job. I’ve got one more door to check and while you’re safe behind a locked door. I’m out trying to not be a target. Just keep them locked in the room and nothing bad will happen.” He got quieter and looked into the classroom. “Is Rob Light in class today?”
My heart sank at these words. “Is he the one?”
“I didn’t say that, is he here?”
“He gave me a pass before class from Mr. Barrett, I haven’t seen him since.”
“Get this door locked, and keep everyone inside.”
Inside. Twenty-five people I hate, and the last minutes of my life may be spent with them. “Class, a gunman is in the building. I’ve been told to lock the doors and keep everyone inside. I’m tired of arguing with you, and frankly could care less if you choose to leave the room and get yourself shot. But I will lock the door behind you and you won’t get back in.”
I returned to my desk. I sat for the next fifteen minutes in silence. My students complained the entire time.
10:12 am- Room 88: Mr. Barrett
Things are hectic between classes, but my planning period was next so I had moved into the hallway to help out with supervision. Rob Light stopped me and asked if we could have a few words in the classroom. He wanted to know which assignments he was missing. I knew he wouldn’t finish them. That was standard. The grading period drew near to an end, Rob or his mom would ask for a list of all the work he needed to make up, I would print a list of all my assignments for the grading period, give an incomplete, and that would be the end of it. The tardy bell rang, and as I sat down at the computer he closed the door.
“Rob, leave that open please; no one is going to snoop on us here.”
“I ain’t worried about snoops, Mr. Barrett, but you should be worried about me. Get up from that computer and give me your keys.”
I nearly laughed at his nerve, and I said to him, “Have you lost your mind? Get out of my room. You will not come in here and order me around like that.”
“Oh, I see. You think you the only one with the right to order folks around. Well, today you gonna be the one taking the orders. Get over here and lock this door right now. In about ten minutes every door in this building will be locked when they find out about this.”
Just then, he took a gun from his backpack, and every teacher’s nightmare became my reality.
“I said lock the door!” he yelled.
I turned the lock and he held his hands out for my keys.
“Now get behind the desk and sit. Open your e-mail and type what I tell you.”
He moved behind me, and I could sense the presence of his gun just under my left earlobe.
“Here it goes, just like this: ‘I have a gun, and if anyone tries to come in this room before I’m ready I will shoot him. I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, treated like crap, long enough. Today it all ends.’ Now send it to the principal… not just him, send it to his boss too.”
He moved around to the front of me, turned a desk around to face mine, and placed the gun flat in front of him. He was wearing gloves. He started talking while removing them one finger at a time, like he was in a movie or something. “You like it when we keep our mouths shut don’t you?”
“Rob, what are you talking about? We have to have order in the classroom.”
“You’re always telling us to shut our mouths and quit talking, why don’t you try it out right now, just sit in your seat and shut your mouth.”
I tried to avoid his gaze, but he just stared for what seemed the next hour. When the announcement came across the PA I assumed the rest of the school knew that something bad was happening. Rob continued to sit and stare. If not for the gun on the desk in front of him I would have described the moment as awkward. Considering the gun, I would say it was terrifying. Then we heard the second announcement, and my fear of this episode’s outcome grew.
We continued to sit in silence until we started hearing the voices in the hall.
“You don’t think I’m too bright, do you, Mr. Barrett?”
“Why would you think that, Rob? I certainly don’t—”
“Don’t play stupid now that I’ve got a gun. You know it. I see the look on your face when I walk into class. Do you realize that I’m my own man? I haven’t been told what to do since I was eight years old. I come and go as I please. When I want something, I take it. Sometimes, I’m on my own for months at a time, and I come here, and you think you can tell me when I can and when I can’t.”
“I’m just trying to run a classroom; I’ve got a job to do.”
“That’s your problem, you always trying to 'run' us. I’m not your work to manage. I’m just trying to get out of here to do what I need to do, but you keep getting in my way. I’m here today to tell you that today it’s all over.”
“Rob, I know things are hard for you, but this isn’t the way; you’re only going to make this worse for yourself.”
“I ain’t got no plans for making life worse for myself, but today you gonna see who the smart one is, you gonna see who’s really got the power in this place. Remember last week, when I walked out of class to go to the bathroom. You told me I had to wait, but I showed you who was in charge didn’t I?”
“I guess if you mean you got your way, you did.”
“But do you remember our argument when I got back?”
“Yes, how could I forget?”
“You ever been that mad with a student before?”
“Look, I’m really sorry about that, I just lost it. I haven’t ever been that angry with a student before.”
“Do you remember what you said?”
“I said, ‘I just wish that I could make you disappear from my life forever.' I didn’t mean it, I really am sorry.”
With those words, I heard a slight knock at the door.
“Mr. Barrett, are you in there?”
His eyes glared as he held up his right hand, palm out, inches from my face. “Say just what I tell you, nothing more: ‘You’re going to need to wait, I’ve got to take care of a little business here, and then I’ll let you in.’”
While I parroted his words, he took a tissue, stood, and wiped a clump of dirt from his shoe. He took the gun with the same hand and laid it on my desk, right in front of me. He turned his back and walked to the front of the classroom. I watched as he walked, and he said, without looking back, “You notice anything unusual in your house this morning?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look at the gun.” I shifted my gaze to the cold steel on my desk. It looked just like my handgun; I took the weapon in my hand to examine it. I stared at it wondering how he’d gotten it, and he said, “I told you Mr. Barrett, it all ends today.”
With that, he opened the door.
“Please don’t let him shoot me, Mr. Barrett snapped, he’s been telling me he’s had enough and today he’s gonna end it all. He sent me a pass to come see him, then he locked me in here and pulled out this gun, he’s lost it I tell you.”
Mr. Hunter pulled Rob out of the room and closed the door. I took a breath and counted to ten. Four armored policemen burst in wielding rifles yelling at me to drop the gun and show my hands. From there, it’s a blur: the handcuffs, the squad car, the questioning. I told my story to principals, officers, magistrates; and now while I speak with my lawyer I realize the truth. I’m no longer a teacher, I’m a headline: Local Teacher Cracks Under Pressure, Pulls Gun on Student.
Steven Turner is an Advanced Placement Psychology teacher at Albemarle High School. When not inspiring or being inspired by his students, he is a happy husband, stalwart father, and youth minister at Chestnut Grove Church.