“Shelter in place” was the name of a particular drill
at the West Virginia high school where I taught sophomores
literature and grammar in 2002, where Sammie who wore her hair
in pigtails like a little girl once outlined her desk
in Elmer’s glue, paying particular attention to filling in
the long narrow indentation at the top of the desk
meant for holding a pencil. Sammie dated Derek who wore camo
every day and wrote in his journal because I forced him to
about hunting deer on the weekends. In my memory Sammie is
6 months pregnant but she wasn’t pregnant yet, that year.
The school was a mile down river from the factory
the locals called “the chemical plant;” the “shelter in place” drill
was for in case the chemical plant caught on fire.
When the alarm sounded, the whole school was to
stuff itself into the gym. Standing in the the gym
with a thousand teenagers, I remember saying to myself
hell no. If ever this is not a drill, I am walking directly
to my car and leaving this entire city.
My classroom that year had no windows.
The sophomores were sweet but unruly.
One of my students was a Syrian refugee.
Three unrelated boys in second period had parents in prison.
With enough classroom structure, I could get them
to practice correcting comma splices on worksheets.
That was the year I first tried to meditate.
I sat on the stairway of our home on Charleston’s
“west side,” where we’d chosen to live because
the hills looked pretty from the plane window,
and sobbed. The rent was cheap. The stove was
infested with mice. The scent of what we would
eventually place as a meth lab mixed in the air
with Tide from the nearby laundromat.
The neighbors were friendly and curious.
The elderly Sylvie to our south was kind
and chatty; the teenage Cassie across the street
teased us about the six-packs she watched us
unload one day with groceries: y’all fixin
to get twisted. Hell no, I thought, in the gym,
where in my memory 50 Cent’s “In da Club”
plays over the loudspeaker, though surely
I am mixing that up with a different assembly,
one more celebratory. Absolutely not.
And I was lucky. At the end of that year,
I could leave.