We begin routines at a very young age, as young as kindergarten and pre-school. My earliest school years are well in the past and my recall of that time is vague and shapeless, with the exception of two memories, both routines.
The first strong and clear memory is getting ready for school. The morning routine started with a call from my mom, telling me to get dressed and come eat breakfast. We lived in Edmonton where winters are cold. The sound of the electric furnace forcing warm air throughout the house filled my room with a steady, comforting hum. That sound filled the bathroom, too. I would take my clothes to the bathroom, so I could dress after I brushed my teeth. Before dressing, I would sit on the floor with my legs crossed, knees pulled up to my chest and my arms hugging them close. I would sit like this, perched over the heating vent, air blowing up from the basement, warming my legs and arms, a comfort. I would close my eyes and rest my forehead on my knees, sometimes falling back to sleep to the thrum of the furnace. The sound of my mom rattling the doorhandle would make me jump.
The second strong and clear memory is practically universal: the drill. Although I have always been a compliant student, things did not begin this way when we practiced our fire drill. I remember this experience so clearly because of the gym bag. When I started school, my mom sent me with a lunch box and a new, cloth gym bag to hold my inside shoes. She had made the bag herself, using striped fabric and a long shoelace for the drawstring. I was so proud of my gym bag and my clean, new runners inside. It was during our introduction to the fire drill that I discovered what would happen to my prized gym bag if the alarm sounded: it would be left hanging in the cloakroom, abandoned. I was not having that, and so I challenged my teacher. “What if my gym bag is not in the cloakroom, but at my seat with me?” – leave it behind. “What if the string is actually on my wrist?” – leave it behind. “Wouldn’t it be faster if I just left with the bag instead of taking it off my arm?” – leave it behind. I was only five and was quickly bested by my teacher.
I would practice this routine again and again, for the next thirteen years. We were always drilling, and I learned early to trust that my stuff would be safe when compliantly left behind. At times, the drill was someone’s idea of a prank: no smoke, no fire. I never understood the joke and had never pulled the alarm myself… until I did. I was a Vice-Principal the first time I pulled a fire alarm, when I discovered smoke curling out from under the door to a science classroom. Where there is smoke, there is fire. Turns out all the practice worked.
Sometimes the prank had nothing to do with the fire alarm, although the practiced evacuation served us well. When the anonymous call came in to the office, everyone relocated to our safe sites. Everyone, that is, except the Principal and Vice-Principals who were searching inside garbage bins and above ceiling tiles, as if we knew what to look for. That practice was wisely discontinued.
There are times that the drill had nothing to do with evacuation. BC is the most seismically active area of Canada; as a jurisdiction, everywhere in BC is considered at high risk in relation to the rest of the country. And so we drill, practicing ‘Drop, Cover, and Hold On.’
With the new millennium, another drill emerged in schools. As a Principal, I had a difficult time getting my head around this one.
In the early aughts, I worked in a school which was built in the 1990s. It is a beautiful facility with wide hallways, open spaces, and plenty of natural light. To take advantage of this design, nearly every classroom has at least one wall which is made mostly of glass. Each of these rooms is, effectively, a fishbowl. The rooms are equipped with blinds, yet closing them denies the light. While the window walls weighed heavily in my deliberations, I was troubled by more than design. I struggled to engage with the situation we would be practicing.
A school may enter a lockdown for several reasons. In the lands I call home, those reasons may be the untamed wildlife with whom we share the neighbourhood. Cougar and bear are seasonal considerations, and we must be prepared… so, we drill. However, those inside the school need not hide in silence for fear that a black bear might hear their whispers, and a cougar cannot rattle the locked doorhandle. Lockdown drills suggest the potential threats of a different creature altogether. The first time I walked through hallways which were eerily quiet and dark, knowing I was in the company of more than five hundred people in hiding, I felt something akin to sorrow. Despite this, I moved from room to room, checking for locked doors.
Throughout the pandemic, we heard that schools reflect their communities; and, we must think upon what is mirrored from society in this routine.
Dynamic and evolving, schools and communities continue to transform, as do the educators and leaders within. We drill and practice routines as best we can for a road ahead that is still slightly out of focus. It is certain that school leaders revisited and reviewed lockdown protocols this week, provoking a range of emotions – deep sadness and confounded reason, a frisson of fear, a simmering ember of fury. Perhaps a little shame at the relief we feel to be conducting these drills on this side of the 49th. Together, we must keep hope and work toward a better reflection.