14 February 2018

Natural Disasters

I wrote this poem last fall. It's been ringing in my ears all day. 

Natural Disasters

In how to handle tornadoes, we have been well trained: we kneel
against lockers, foreheads touching cool metal, thin arms
awkwardly crossed above our heads and exposed necks,
teachers strolling inspection, scolding our stifled giggles. It’s just
a drill. Repeat anything enough and it becomes routine, and dull.

When I’m eleven, the playground skies turn yellow green, and sirens
outside trigger our training. In orderly rows we walk the halls to claim
our places against the lockers. We curl like caterpillars against the sounds
of sirens still wailing, now muffled by cinderblock walls and howling
winds. We wait for the all-clear. We trust it will come. It always does.

Years later, sirens sound in the city and now in my twenties
I, well-trained, travel dutifully down four flights to the basement. In the dark,
my neighbors sit with necessities: a flashlight, a radio, a case of cheap beer.
They have found folding chairs, metal, church basement style, and set them
in a circle. Grandly, they offer me a seat and a beer. I take both.

We trade tornado stories and track the storm. Midwesterners all, we laugh
about drills in elementary school—different schools, different cities,
same curled-up crouches, same whispering rows. And look: it worked.
Here we are, in the basement, in our twenties, waiting for the sirens
to stop. Say what you will about school drills. We are all well-trained.

In my thirties, we don’t have basements but we do have drills. Familiar
in ways, though I am now the teacher. Here, we have no sirens. Here,
a voice comes on the intercom to begin the drill. I turn off the lights. I shush
my students. I train them to crouch on the floor. Make yourself small. Cover
your heads. In hushed anticipatory silence, we wait for the all-clear.

Unlike me, my students are not well-trained. They haven’t spent childhood
marching into place, don’t know how to stay silent and still, don’t
automatically drop into rounded lumps like rows of toadstools. They
tangle themselves in clusters of teenaged limbs. They whisper. They giggle.
I hush. They fidget and fuss. They wonder and worry. Shhh, I shush. It’s just a drill.

But the shock, when it comes, does not feel like a drill. Our dusky
quiet is suddenly interrupted. My startled students bolt straight.

The banging like gunshots on the classroom door.
The shouting voice, full of rage. LET ME IN. I HAVE A GUN.

My students scream, loud as sirens. I scream too.

The banging stops. The voice comes again, but now it is familiar; it belongs
to the principal. This is a drill. Are you okay? he asks. Everyone okay?
We giggle in giddy relief, my students and I. Sorry! I call. We’re okay!
We have failed the drill. I let the principal in, and he lectures us all. Next time,
it might be real. We nod solemnly. Next time, we’ll do better, we swear.

After a year, we are all well-trained. We know how to hide
under desks and tables. We stay silent when the shooter slams his fists
against the classroom door. Eyes wide, we watch each other in darkness
while the shooter shouts threats in the hallway. Shhhh, our eyes say. It’s
only a drill. Repeated enough, it has become routine, almost dull.

I wonder where my students will be when their training kicks in
again. In their teens? Twenties? Well-trained, crouched quiet
in a dark room, sharing eyes with strangers who’ve been well-trained too—
will they be at school? an airport? a church? the mall? a classroom
of their own, teaching children

how to hide under desks and tables,
how to stay silent and still, crouched in quiet,
how not to cry when the banging comes—

When it comes
they will be well-trained in how to survive
the disasters we have agreed we are powerless
to prevent. Repeated enough, it has become routine, almost


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