On Friday, I woke up early, put on my jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, my wool jacket, and a pair of thick-soled tennis shoes before grabbing Dan’s ski gloves from the closet.
The campus-wide invitation said to bring a pair, and, if there is one thing I’m good at, it is planning ahead to avoid pain.
Before Friday, I had never had a gun fired at me. Never really spent much time thinking about a gun firing at me. But I also knew from the coworkers who had finished this drill on Thursday, BBs hurt. So I prepared myself as best as I could for those metal pellets that would be flying through the air.
I won’t bore you with all of the details of the drill, or give you my opinion on why these mass shootings are becoming common enough that we have to rehearse them, or dip my toe in the murky political back-and-forth about guns, but let me tell you, violence–even the simulated kind–produces a clarity that few things can rival. It has a way of revealing who will lead and who will follow, who will fight and who will freeze. It shows you things about yourself.
In the few seconds that each simulation took, some people acted heroically, using desks and water bottles to drive the would-be shooter back into the hallway. Some cowered in corners. Some kept their cool and some panicked. A few stared wide-eyed, forgetting even to duck. My 60-something boss tackled the school’s CFO so hard he had to ask her to let go.
I’m telling you, it’s an eye-opener.
We started the first drill crouching under our desks, quiet and passive, the way we’ve been taught.
We were easy targets.
As we stood, counted the wounded, and resettled ourselves for round two, no one needed to tell us the takeaway message; we got it, viscerally: if you want to survive, you’ve got to listen to your instincts, and you’ve got to fight. Obediently lining up under a row of desks only favors the guy carrying the gun.
Bill, the retired police officer overseeing the training, then instructed us to secure the classroom door with a cord. Without hesitation, I popped up, grabbed the orange electrical cord that snaked through the fingers of two guys in front of me, and handed the tail to a woman behind me. Our collective weight kept the shooter out.
Then it switched, and we were on our own.
No formal plan. No one telling us what to do, other than fight with what we had and flee if we could.
I wish I could tell you that I charged in the face of those flying pellets to grab an arm or throw a water bottle, but I couldn’t. I didn’t. I crouched low and waited.
After each episode, we collectively exhaled, lifted the Darth Vader-like masks from our faces, and looked around at who was hit.
One woman had a small cut from where a BB had pierced the skin beneath her jeans. The weight of the situation felt all the more real watching that little trickle of blood along her calf. Some of us whispered nervously, but most of us were quiet–reverent and waiting for what might happen next.
My heartbeat never slowed.
For the final simulation, we were corralled in a large room, and when the gunman barged in, he was far enough from me that I could crawl on my belly to a side door.
Only three of us thought to escape. The rest stayed and watched.
Now, I know it is a leap, but on the drive home, when the adrenaline slowed enough to process what I had just seen, I realized how disconnected I am from my life—not my role in life, but my actual heart-beating, blood-flowing, God-given gift of a life—how much time I waste waiting for instructions or planning for things that may never happen, as though by predicting their coming I will be able to ease their pain.
I also felt weak, guilty that I hadn’t charged into danger.
On Sunday, in that mysterious offering of signs and wonders that we sometimes shrug off as coincidence, the visiting pastor reminded us that “Fear Not” is the most prevalent phrase in Scripture. She said it, a few times, and I knew it—in the pit of my stomach and along the roof of my mouth—as though my mind and soul and heart and body remembered they were connected.
I felt better but still, if we’re being honest, embarrassed that I hadn’t fought.
Monday came, and I went to writing group. It wasn’t until later that I saw the missed call from Shelbe.
You should know that Shelbe is tough, like born-in-Alaska, carry-a-gun, talk-straight kind of tough. She would have no qualms throwing hot coffee at a shooter. She could probably wrestle him to ground single-handedly.
So her message surprised me: she was housesitting for someone in our neighborhood, and when she opened the front door, she heard a door slam inside the house. She thought about going in, but instead, she called me, and when she couldn’t reach me, she drove to our house, and when Dan told her he couldn’t leave because I was at writing group and Benjamin was sleeping, she called the cops to “sweep the house.” (Her actual words. See? She’s tough.)
If that were another friend, it would not be noteworthy, but for her, I was speechless. I was so proud of her, so relieved that she listened to that voice, listened to her instincts that said, “Do NOT go inside that dark place by yourself.”
I know her well enough to know that it wasn’t an easy choice. She doesn’t like to be dependent on people, doesn’t like to need help. In fact, not walking in that dark house was probably one of the bravest things Shelbe could have done.
As I thought about Shelbe, it was as though my brain reset, and I could see the truth more clearly: sometimes you fight evil and sometimes you flee it; neither is passive.
So what does it all mean? I’m not quite sure. But I think, “Fear Not” might also be, “Stop plan-worrying,” “Stop trying to control the uncontrollable,” “Stop trying to answer questions that haven’t been asked.”
Pay attention to your surroundings.
Trust that you aren’t alone.
I put Dan’s gloves back up on the shelf–unused–and called Shelbe to see if I could write about her.
If you’re reading this, she said, “Yes.”
CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life.
Wow. I’m glad you had the opportunity to practice. Don’t beat yourself up. You’re way ahead of most people now.
I liked this article on surviving an active shooter situation. http://www.artofmanliness.com/2015/11/30/what-to-do-in-an-active-shooter-situation/
The author also recommended a few books, one of which really impacted how I thought. It talks about the mentality shift needed from self defense and martial arts (which operates on principled rules of engagement) and how violent people think differently than the average citizen. https://www.amazon.com/Survive-Most-Critical-Seconds-Your/dp/1615393102
I always look forward to reading what you write Claire. Your insights are so meaningful to me and your stories are really engaging. You are truly a gifted writer!
“Have faith. Breathe deep.” Yes. Love your writing, Claire. And your heart.