Since the American Navy had accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner the previous summer there had been talk of terrorist reprisals, and American schools were one of the targets being threatened. If that was the case, and the school which had already been struck was so close . . .
Neil found himself searching the playground with his eyes, and at the time it did not seem melodramatic. He said, “What do you want me to do?”
“Don’t say anything to your students, but be on the alert. Join Tom and me out front when the busses come to pick them up. It’s late enough in the afternoon that we probably won’t have any parents coming in to pick up their children because they heard it. If some parent comes in, get their child out of the classroom without a fuss. If we can manage it, I want to get these kids home with their parents before they hear about it.”
Bill went on to pass the word and Neil returned to his classroom. Bill’s words “a bunch of dead and wounded” rang in his head as he sat down and looked at his kids. Little Randi Nguyen with her boundless energy; Rabindranath who was calm and bright and utterly without a sense of humor; Lisa Cobb with her erratic behavior and terrible puns; even Jesse Herrera. Dead or wounded . . .; he had to shake his head to drive the vision away.
The bell for the last break of the day caught him by surprise and he jumped. Somebody laughed, then hid his laughter. The students all rushed for the door. Neil was on his feet in an instant and out the door to pace the playground in paranoid fear. All of the other teachers were out, exchanging worried glances and saying nothing.
When the busses came, a phalanx of teachers was there to protect their students from an enemy who never appeared.
# # #
Neil drove to the mall after school and went to a department store where he had seen racks of televisions on display. He had no TV himself and he did not want to watch this with Carmen. He could either watch it alone, or in the anonymity of a public place, but not with someone he loved. He arrived at the store just in time to see the whole bloody scene on the news. All normal business had stopped in the store as clerks and customers stood riveted by the horror of it.
A second channel picked it up and Neil watched again. His fascination was like a private shame. He hated the newsman for the way he shoved his microphone into a child’s face to ask her how she had felt, but he could not turn away.
The next morning the Modesto Bee devoted five full pages to the tragedy. Neil, who did not subscribe, went out early to buy a copy and read it all. Five dead. Thirty wounded. That would be half of the kids he taught. And all the rest, the other three hundred students, would never feel safe again. Like a rape, it would tear them out of their childhoods and plunge them into a mad, adult world long before their time.
What would he say to his own students today? more tomorrow