This commentary was written the day last month that 10th graders in Los Angeles were due to take the math portion of the California High School Exit Exam.
Five pops that sounded like fireworks. Short and crisp. Totally misplaced at 8:05 a.m. Who lights fireworks on a Wednesday morning?
But it wasn’t fireworks and you know that. After half a second, I knew that too.
When I saw our dean and one of our campus security guards running toward the gate behind my classroom, to the street where the shots had been fired, I realized they were acting as our first responders, and that sometime today I might get news that one of our students had been killed.
When my colleagues and I began ushering kids into our school’s main hall, away from the outdoor lunch tables where they’d been chatting and eating their breakfasts, we held our arms wide like wings, like we knew exactly what was going on and that there was nothing to be scared or worried about.
In a large classroom, 15 colleagues and I supervised roughly 50 students while waiting for more information about the violent event. We stayed in lockdown for about an hour. I made small talk with some girls I’d never taught before. Complimented their outfits. Answered questions about what I teach and why they hadn’t met me. One student was visibly upset and crying. A young teacher comforted her. But most kids just sat with friends, and some listened to music or did whatever teenagers do on their phones when social media is blocked by the school firewall. After talking with the girls, I peeled and ate some mandarin oranges given to me by our school counselor. I wasn’t hungry but I ate them anyway.
Ten minutes into lockdown, a veteran teacher from the community said, “Who wants to review some math?” And about 25 kids joined him at a whiteboard in the corner of the room while he covered formulas for finding the areas of geometric shapes. Although I’ve been teaching in urban schools for 10 years, this is the first time I’d heard gunshots while responsible for children, and despite my calm and warm exterior, during lockdown I felt angry and scared. I walked over and watched him teach, grateful for the chance to think about ways to find the area of a circle.
And when the voice over the loudspeaker told us it was safe to go back outside and to our classrooms, as a staff we did our best to normalize a situation that everyone reading this knows is far from normal.
But then, I teach in Watts, and like many U.S. urban centers, guns and gun violence have become normalized to the point that safe-passage security guards escort kids walking between school and home. These adults are an invaluable community resource. They improve students’ chances of not getting shot or stabbed while exercising their human right to an education. But it’s not enough. In urban centers, kids don’t play after-school sports, or practice for the marching band, or work on the yearbook, because at 5 p.m. when it’s getting dark and practice is over, it’s not safe to walk home
. Unsafe communities preclude students from participating in healthy extracurricular activities that improve their quality of life and enrich their college applications.
Today in Watts, to normalize a morning where someone shot at someone else one block from the entrance to our school, we did our best to follow the day’s planned schedule.
Our 11th and 12th graders hopped on buses for outings to Santa Monica Beach and a hike to the Hollywood sign.
And our 10th graders, without a single protest, walked to their assigned classrooms, to be tested silently for the next 4-7 hours.
Today was the Math portion of the California High School Exit Exam, and every 10th grade public school student in Los Angeles was tested at this very moment.
Many took the test after a good night’s sleep, a healthy breakfast and years of living in a low-stress home environment where they’ve never endured childhood trauma.
Others tested an hour after watching and hearing one human being try to kill another human being. That experience was trauma, and trauma affects cognition.
But it didn’t matter. The test must go on.
Maggie Terry teaches English language development at Locke High School in Watts.