It happened when I was still a relatively new teacher. With a few years under my belt, I was beginning to feel like I knew what I was doing, and I was excited for the promise of the new school year. I was beginning to feel confident in my career, and it was not uncommon for me, typically not a morning person, to cheerfully arrive at school early so I could prepare for each day I had passionately planned with plenty of time before students arrived. On this particular morning, I entered my portable classroom even earlier, as our fifth grade class was in charge of announcements that week, and I had arranged for two students to meet me to practice their parts before the bell.
I stood at the chalkboard to write the daily agenda. Before I could register that the tile beneath my feet had sunk down ever so slightly, a hand wrapped around my neck. “Don’t say a word.”
One of my colleagues, a male teacher, worked in the portable diagonally from me. He was a true morning person, and would often visit the classroom next to me to fill up on coffee. At first I thought the voice came from him, playing an ill-advised prank. But then the arm wrenched me toward the windows. The loud whisper ordered me to, “Close the blinds. Turn off the lights.” And I felt the knife on my neck.
I did as I was told. The stranger remained behind me the entire time. I offered him my purse, dumping it out. He asked for the watch on my wrist, took my money, and kept saying, “What else are you going to give me?”
When there was nothing else, he made me kneel on the floor, and I knew what else he wanted.
In order to prepare himself, the knife came away from my neck for a moment. I took the opportunity to kick back with all of the force I could muster, scramble back to my feet, and run out of the room.
My colleague’s door was locked. I banged on it, screaming his name. As he opened the door, my assailant raced out of the room behind me. Immediately assessing the situation, my colleague asked if I was okay, and ran after the man.
The man disappeared into an adjacent apartment complex. But my co-worker was able to describe him to the police later, which I could not do. He identified the man who was later picked up, arrested, and subsequently provided a dubious alibi in the form of a gas station receipt from across town at the time of the crime. Charges were pressed because he was already wanted for a parole violation, but there was never a resolution to my own incident. I never knew if he really was the perpetrator.
The rest of the morning was a blur, but I remember talking to police officers who were skeptical when I couldn’t give a description, and a public relations representative from the district who joined the conversation and warned me not to talk to anyone in the media.
It never occurred to me to quit my job. I was young, and teaching was all I had ever wanted to do. Even if I could have somehow afforded to quit, I wouldn’t have, because this was the career I had wanted and worked hard for.
I returned to my classroom the next day. My co-workers and many of the parents in the community remarked on my bravery, many surprised that I would come back to the site of such a traumatic experience. I didn’t see it that way at all. It was self-preservation from the moment I kicked that man to the subsequent mornings that I went back to the room, escorted by my hyper vigilant boyfriend. I was going to back to living my normal life, doing what I could control.
The district responded by putting peepholes in all of the portable doors, although that wouldn’t have made a difference in my situation. No one invited the man in. We never found out if he had been hiding in the room next door when I arrived or if I hadn’t closed my door tightly enough behind me.
In the meantime, the community embraced me. Parents informed me, without relating details, that the alleged suspect had been evicted from the apartment complex. Encouraging notes were sent, the teachers at my after-school tutoring job joined together to buy me a new watch. I got lots of extra hugs from my students who, thankfully, did not seem to consider the fact that they might have been in danger, too.
Over twenty years later, I can still trace the exact spot on my skin where the knife rested. I still leap out of my skin when someone sneaks up behind me. The PTSD that I was later diagnosed with (from that and another incident during college) was not the only by-product of that experience. As I reflected on that day periodically throughout the next twenty + years, I realized it was indicative of what I observed repeatedly throughout my career as an educator:
- Educational systems (often school districts) are motivated by two things: money and lawsuits. That’s why a PR person was immediately dispatched to speak with me instead of a counselor. (I was never offered mental health care related to this experience.)
- Educational systems are usually reactive instead of proactive. The peepholes – reactive. Even then, security was extremely lax until school shootings became regular occurrences decades later.
- Educational systems often react with “band-aid” solutions, that don’t address the real problems. Again – the peepholes.
- The system considers teachers expendable. No administrator would have tried to dissuade me from quitting after my assault. No extra care was offered to me to make sure I felt safe. If I had quit, a replacement would have quickly been found – and that person would probably would receive a lower salary than me, saving the district money.
If you think these issues have changed in the last quarter century, I can tell you stories from the last few years that show they have not. So, when you demand that teachers return to the classrooms in the middle of a pandemic, keep the above examples of a broken system in mind. But also remember the power of the community of students, their families, and my colleagues, who did what they could to support a traumatized teacher.
I was willing to return to a classroom where I was nearly raped. Since then, I have repeatedly looked over my students as we huddled during lockdown drills, and knew that I would be willing to take a bullet for any one of them. But COVID-19 is different. It’s not just one man with a knife, hiding in the dark. It’s multiple assailants, waiting patiently to follow teachers home and destroy their families, too.
Many teachers may feel, as I did, that returning to their jobs is a given. They may, unfortunately, have no other choice. I urge teachers, parents, communities, and local leaders to take a good look at what our already broken systems are going to do to ensure the safety (physical and emotional) of school staff. Ask the hard questions (you can find over 400 of them in this document crowd-sourced by Sarah Mulhern Gross), and demand answers. Be proactive. Guarantee that the mental and physical health of your staff and students is paramount – not the scores on standardized tests. Otherwise, the teachers who are on the front-lines will be forced to deal with the consequences. Attrition rates will leap astronomically and, though it may seem like it, there is not an endless supply of teachers – especially good ones.