Letter to America: In Case of Active Shooter, by Heather Ryan

Letter to America: In Case of Active Shooter

By Heather Ryan

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An active shooter is defined as an individual who is actively engaged in killing and/or attempting to kill people in a specific and often confined area using a firearm(s). It is unlikely that such an event will occur on our campus; however, in the event of such an unlikely scenario, it is imperative that you know and understand the following:

  • If possible, leave the area. It will, however, be unlikely you will know which way to exit or how to avoid the active shooter.
  • The area of a college affected by an active shooter is generally confined, and is referred to as “the zone of immediate impact.” It is unlikely you will be in the zone of immediate impact. You should still take cover, barricade all entrances, turn off the lights, cover the windows, and stay quiet if you decide not to leave campus. It is especially important that all cell phones are turned to silent (not “vibrate”).
  • False alarms are all-too-common, as we live in a culture that has decided a heavily-armed citizenry is a good idea. You would be surprised by how many false alarms there are, though they typically don’t make it this far—“this far” being a full lockdown. There was one time your professor remembers specifically at her children’s middle school when a Civil War re-enactor had parked down the street, and was loading his car with Civil-War-Era weapons.
  • Your professor will mention this instance specifically a few moments after the lockdown as a way to calm everyone’s fears, including her own. She will mention that the Civil War re-enactor had been wearing a Union uniform, and she’ll end the story with the phrase, “You can’t be too safe, can you?”
  • The phrase “too safe,” as used in a rhetorical question, will be said frequently in case of a false alarm of active shooter.
  • In case of the inverse, it will not be uttered once.
  • But in a lockdown situation, you will not know if this is an active shooter or a false alarm, and you will teeter between helplessness and fear and hope. You will hope this is a silly false alarm. You’ll hope it’s another Civil War re-enactor. Or someone going to a costume party, dressed as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, or a national guardsman carrying his weapon out of uniform. After all, the armory is just down the block, and you’ve seen soldiers there, in the parking lot, many times.
  • You will cling to these theories—however thinly spun—even as you prepare for the reality that may await you coming through the door.
  • In case of active shooter or false alarm, it is recommended that you take cover immediately and find items to use as improvised weapons, which include the following:
    • Stapler/mechanical stapler
    • Three-hole punch
    • Lectern or podium
    • Fire extinguisher
    • Books
    • Toner cartridge
    • Hot beverages or water bottles (if full)
  • In case of active shooter, this list of improvised weapons is not complete.
  • Your professor will direct you to find improvised weapons, and as you grab up the staplers and hole-punches, she will have one distinct memory break through the stress and activity: the afternoon a group of bullies chased her home, punching her face, stomach, and arms and how her little brother—only eight—came out of your house with a handful of eggs and threatened to pelt the bullies.
  • In front of her house in Stockton, California, such threats thwarted the bullies. But your professor is under no illusion that these improvised weapons will work. She believes, though, that gathering them makes everyone feel less small and vulnerable as you wait for this to end.
  • You may feel the urge to call close friends and family members. Resist this, as any noise—but particularly the half-whispered, frantic, one-sided dialogue created by such a situation—can attract the attention of the active shooter.
  • You may, however, text your close friends and family members. In case of active shooter, it is recommended that you keep text messages brief but sincere. Apologizing for any past wrongs or arguments is acceptable, though be cautious about instigating a lengthy exchange. Remember that this is a crisis, and you may have several people to contact. Think, of course, of those on the receiving end of these messages. Do you want your potential last messages to them to be a rekindling of an old argument?
  • Because you’re mostly young adults, you may not yet fully understand the weight of those potential last messages as much as your professor does. This is a writing class, and she’s committed to making you better writers, but even she—in case of active shooter or false alarm—will stare blankly at the screen of her iPhone, and will wonder at whom to text, what to say, and how to say it.
  • There are no course objectives that cover composition strategies in case of active shooter. Your professor would argue that all writing instruction covers such situations, but she would also acknowledge her belief that one should never have to consider such rhetorical situations.
  • Your professor has three teenagers and, as it turns out, two of them happen to be on campus today in the lockdown. They are 18 and 16 and she thinks, momentarily, that this is the worst kind of luck one can have. They will be the first people she texts, to make sure they are safe and to assuage any fear they may be experiencing. She’ll tell them she’s sure it’s a false alarm, though she’s not at all sure. She will tell them to stay away from windows, doors.
  • She will hope this is enough to keep them safe, and part of her will wish that the active shooter comes to her building and not theirs, if it comes to that. Statistically, she knows it’s likely that the shooter will remain in one building, and if it’s hers, and not her kids’, a part of her will be relieved.
  • Resist the urge to text your one unrequited love a declaration of your affection. No matter the outcome of the active shooter scenario, you will make more problems than you will solve. Imagine his/her/their response if you do not make it out of the active shooter scenario; imagine your horror if the active shooter scenario turns out to be a false alarm.
  • Your professor will think specifically of the one former love she regrets losing, the one she still wonders about, and still sometimes ponders the slow, inevitable break-up. She will half-construct a message to him, then delete it.
  • In case of active shooter and/or false alarm, you may look at your cell phone and wonder how to send the necessary text messages to your family and friends. You may search for a joke to make it seem like you are okay, to make it easier for them.
  • You will learn there are no good jokes in a time like this, no words that will be big enough to capture your fear and shaky hope and love. A poet might be able to write such a joke, but you are not a poet. Neither is your professor, so you can’t ask her.
  • It is recommended that your text messages to family and friends be brief and factual, and include one clear sentiment that expresses the relationship you’ve shared (“I love you” works well).
  • In case of active shooter, your professor will take pains to make sure you are okay. She will smile, even though she, too, is shaking, her adrenaline pumping. She will help you move the table in front of the door, stack the chairs into a heap in front of that. She will tell the story about the Civil-War re-enactor, of course. And another about the chemistry professor who blew up a small part of the lab, yet another about the box left outside an office that was “disposed of” by the bomb squad, which is one way to say, “caused to explode in a controlled manner.” It turned out to be carefully packed kiwis shipped from Australia. The last one she only read about, and maybe she has some of the facts wrong, but she doesn’t tell you that. She will, however, repeat the phrase “no one was hurt” after each story like a benediction.
  • In the darkness of the classroom, your professor may come and talk to each of you, and say a few words. Perhaps you have not known your professor long—maybe this is the first week or two of the term—but she will want you to be calm. She also doesn’t know any other way to deal with this, with her worry over her children, or her friends, or other students. She will wonder at the silence of the room, the building, the campus. You may notice her closing her eyes and taking slow, controlled breaths. This is a way to control her fears and calm herself. Certainly, she is not conjuring images of the active shooter in her head.
  • Though if she did, she might imagine him as a male, as statistically it is most likely, and she might even conjure an image of him, his fatigues, his black backpack, his black hat and gloves, the sheen on the gun he holds in his arms, cradled like a dearly wanted infant.
  • In case of active shooter, your professor’s mind might play out various scenarios that might soon take place in this classroom. She imagines the risks, the possible need for sacrifice. She thinks of her children, then sends their faces away. This is not the time to think of them.
  • In case of active shooter or false alarm, law enforcement response time averages three to four minutes. You might find yourself counting the seconds until you hear the sirens. This is an appropriate response to stress and fear.
  • If the sirens do not come for some time, and when you do not hear gunshots, screams, or other sounds of violence, you might engage in quiet conversation. You might show your professor the jokes that your parents made over a group text. The way your dad and mom engaged in a ridiculous argument over whether they should pray for you—you told them you were holding the fire extinguisher, which is the best improvised weapon you have—and how you knew that their argument was an act not entirely for your benefit, that it was also a way for them to manage what might be the last minutes of your life, because at the end your mom asked how many men were in the room, and your dad said, “No matter what, you do not let anyone through that door.”
  • Your professor will remember your dad’s words to you, an 18-year-old he was charging with keeping the room safe, and the way his directive calmed you because it gave you a job.
  • She wishes she could thank your dad for that, and for the sentiment. It made her, momentarily, feel less responsible for the 16 other people in the room.
  • In case of active shooter or false alarm, you may notice the veterans will be the most at ease. One may gently say, “You got this, professor,” every so often, in a voice so controlled and clear it may remind you of a beloved aunt or uncle, helping you with some new skill when you were five or six or seven, perhaps hitting the plastic simulacrum of a baseball off a tee, or diving into the deep end of the pool. He will be the calmest of everyone, and will continue doing homework for another class while other students sit on the floor against the far wall looking scared.
  • He will tell your professor, in a voice full of kindness and experience, “It’s a lot harder to kill people than you think.”
  • Mimicking his demeanor may help you manage your own fear, though it will not completely erase it.
  • In case of active shooter, keep in mind that you will probably live and escape physically unscathed. In case of active shooter, remember that this is a numbers game, and an active shooter has only thus far been able to kill 58 people at once. Your school has quite a few more students than this.
  • Your professor has made a mental note to check the above bullet point annually to ensure the number is still correct when she revises this syllabus.
  • When you get the word that the threat was an explosion and reported gunman not far from campus, but that the SWAT team has “determined the campus is safe,” your professor will breathe deeply once, twice. She will smile, turn on the lights, and unlock the door.
  • Later, your professor will sit at her desk and cry—the kind of crying where the body is incapable of speaking, and can only take in great gulps of air. Everyone is safe, she will remind herself. Everything turned out okay. Her 16-year-old son will come into her office and appear shocked at his mother’s sobbing. He has, of course, already been through several lockdowns in his life.
  • At her desk, she will recall the friend who was at Virginia Tech during their shooting, how he lost a student that day, and the arc of grief and fear that determined his life for the few years after. She will think about the fact that she had planned on applying for a teaching job at Umpqua Community College, where a shooting occurred just the year before, if she hadn’t managed to land this one, and how the professor who was killed there was teaching a writing class she’s taught at least a dozen times. He was an alumnus of her own program.
  • In the first few seconds of the lockdown, she had one thought that came to her calmly and rationally: you knew this would happen eventually.
  • It is this thought that will allow her—before the crying at the desk, and the recollection of her friend at V-Tech, or her professional doppelganger at Umpqua—to understand what to do once the lockdown is lifted. She will smile at each of you. She will ask the student who is a parent if she was able to get a hold of her daycare provider, postpone an assignment, change a reading.
  • Your professor will usher everyone out, and will be the last one in the room, so she can turn off the lights, lock the door.
  • She will look over the room one last time. She’s taught in here hundreds of times by now, and the room quickly became familiar, boring even. There is the printer and the reams of paper stored haphazardly underneath. There is the document camera, and the computer, and the white board, and the projector. There is the collection of remote controls she still has not mastered.
  • In the light canting through the blinds, the room will look newly sinister: the collection of staplers and hole punches at the front on the instructor’s work station, the fire extinguisher set awkwardly back in its mount on the wall. She will notice the windows again: Why are they so big? she will ask herself. She wonders how long it will take for the room to look normal again, and if the class will show the effects of this extended experience of group fright and vulnerability.
  • In case of false alarm, you will be surprised at how quickly this return to normality will happen. How, within days, you will look for the hole-punch without remembering the way you held it in your hands, tested its weight, and judged it as a weapon. You will again ignore the fire extinguisher on the wall. There will be no fracturing of the class’s personality, nor any sense of unification or coming together. You will be bored sometimes. You will make friends. You’ll hate the person who sits across from you.
  • The texts your parents and children and siblings and small or great loves sent you—the admonitions to fight back, or hide, or the simple fervent I love yous issued under fear and threat of immediate death—will be lost in the slow, inevitable march of other texts to pick up milk, or where to meet for the matinee, or a gif of a man slipping on ice.
  • Your professor will fleetingly marvel at how easy it is to slip back into everyday life, how this will become a story she can tell at parties and over cocktails at a bar, as though it were the same as other stories of calamity narrowly averted: the car hitting black ice and turning, slowly, almost gracefully, in perfect circles until it slumped against a hedge; the $500 deposit she made at the ATM that got stuck in a nook of the machine and the tech who found it; the RV whose axle broke on I-5, the tire bouncing along the interstate, cars dodging it, the axle sending sparks all over the roadway in dainty arcs.
  • These stories are different, she will notice. They are set into motion by natural or technological forces out of her, or anyone’s, immediate control. Though she will still tell the story, she will laugh about it, laugh about her sobbing in particular. It will surprise her how quickly she will laugh.



Heather RyanHeather Ryan’s nonfiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, NPR, and Salon, and her short fiction has appeared in the Southern Humanities Review and Western Humanities Review. She teaches English at a community college in a tiny town in north central Washington, and spends her time writing, knitting, ad watching Buffy reruns. She’s working on a dystopian novel about California, and tackling more essays and short fiction where she plays with form.

Header photo by Wokandapix, courtesy Pixabay.
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