Back when I was teaching I graded papers with Paper Mate flair pens. I would buy packages of these thin multicolor markers at Target and stockpile them in my desk. I was drawn to specific colors, especially purple. Purple was regal. It was power. It was respect. Every time I used my purple flair pen, I hoped my almost indecipherable scratchings would be noticed, understood, and remembered. These markings were how I often “spoke” to my students. It was my ancient wisdom delivered through side remarks and proofreading edits. I rarely used red because research stated that red was thought to elicit negative emotions from students. Red is an intense color. It signifies love, fire, and blood. So I tucked the red pens back in the drawers and instead used less impassioned colors to remark on essays, homework, and speech critiques.
After I retired and began journaling, I gave up the flair pens. I didn’t like the way they flowed over the pages and often bled to the other side. After experimenting with various brands, I found Paper Mate Ink Joy gel pens. I am still drawn to purple and pink, and usually leave the red in my desk.
On Wednesday in honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to pull out the red pen for my daily scratchings. I admit it felt odd to write in red, this pen color I had cast aside for years, but I scribbled three pages of ideas for possible blog posts. Bright red words on crisp white pages. I then tucked my notebook away and got ready for a luncheon I was hosting for a group of women I’ve grown to love.
Later that afternoon a news alert came over my phone. My heart lurched. I turned on the television to images of police surrounding a school, of terrified students running from the building with their hands over their heads, of parents pacing the sidewalks with cell phones in hands, of first responders working on victims. I stopped breathing. News trickled out. Injuries, then fatalities. My mind raced through the familiar halls of this school, imagining the terror. Even though I had never stepped foot in this building, I knew it. I saw bulletin boards, textbooks, and desks. And then my mind went to cowering kids, frantically texting their parents. I caught a glimpse of teachers fiercely protecting their students, yet thinking of their own families. But mostly it saw blood. Bright red blood splashed against artwork and lockers and fallen book bags.
I am sad. I am angry. I am grieving.
During my last few years of teaching I participated in code red drills, and every single one filled me with anxiety and dread. After one particular drill the assistant principal came to each room informing us of our errors. When he came to mine he told me I was “dead.” I still remember the sick feeling as he said this to me. I was dead. No, I couldn’t be dead. Not in this “safe” classroom of mine where I spent every day teaching Romeo and Juliet or listening to awkward speeches or working on yearbook pages. No. No. No.
Code red. There’s that color again. Red. Our school colors were red and white. Red and white. My breath is ragged. My heart is cracked. Red and white.
Even though I no longer walk the halls, I am still there. I want to protect those kids from everything that hurts them. I want to swoop in and whisper, “Everything is going to be okay.”
We are the grownups. We need to work together to protect our kids. Yes, it is a gun problem. Yes, it is a mental health issue. Yes, it is a parenting issue. Yes, it is a political issue. Yes, it is a money issue. Yes, it is a societal breakdown issue. Yes, it is an isolationist issue. Yes, it is OUR issue. We need to own it, and come up with realistic, non-partisan ways to solve it. For OUR kids.
I am a retired teacher. I am a mother. I am a grandmother. I am the mother of a Navy veteran and a police officer. I am the step-mother of a teacher. I am the sister of a principal of an elementary school. I am friends with teachers. I am a liberal who loves this country. I am friends with conservatives who love this country. I am a non-gun owner. I am friends with gun owners. I am a writer of love, of heartache, of peace, of struggle, of simple joys and complicated pain.
Part of me wants to use a red pen every day until we can come together to work on what is breaking us apart, yet I will leave it in the drawer. I can’t bring myself to put the red pen to the crisp white paper. It’s too painful, for I’m still grieving.