Lessons on Fear While Taking Cover in the School Library
By Jamie Sladkey | May 9, 2018
In the morning of March 14 hundreds of thousands of students across the United States walked out of their classrooms for seventeen minutes to protest gun violence in schools, specifically memorializing seventeen students who were killed a month earlier in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. In my role as program director of Covenant Youth Collision, every week I work with high-school students, teaching them leadership and discipleship. I knew that some of them were participating in the walk-out in their high schools, and I was deeply moved by the courage and passion expressed by these future leaders. It made me proud to work with high-school students, and proud to know that some of mine had walked out of their classrooms and their schools to stand up for the right to be safe in their schools.
Later that afternoon I was reading in the library at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary where I am a first-year student. I was sitting near the front doors of the library with a couple of friends when one looked at her phone and exclaimed, “What!?”
Someone had posted on the student Facebook page that there were reports of an active shooter on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus where Garrett is located.
We re-read the post and asked each other what we should do. We were scared, but we didn’t move. A nearby group of second-year students asked one another if they should get to a safe place, but they remained seated as well. We all seemed to be frozen in place, looking at one another and at our phones, almost as if waiting to see if the others would move. After a few long minutes, an email came through confirming what we feared, and a professor walked past, locking doors and saying to us calmly, “Lockdown.”
My heart was in my stomach. We had no idea where the shooter might be or what had already happened. We realized we needed to get away from the windows as quickly as possible. Many people looked around the room, confused. My two friends and I wondered if we should go somewhere else. We stood up and put our books in our backpacks.
Finally I said, “Let’s go down to the basement.”
We walked down the stairs where we found a few more friends who had not heard about the lockdown. As they quickly checked their email, we looked around and noticed a window that faced the front doors of the seminary. Someone suggested that we move deeper into the basement. We walked through study areas and book stacks until we reached a secluded room in the farthest corner of the library.
We sat down at a table and began to text our loved ones. The cell service was spotty, so we relied on each other to find out what was happening. I was able to text my boyfriend, my family, and a group of close friends. I began every message saying, “Don’t worry, I’m safe,” then I went on to tell them that there was a report of a gunman on campus.
I could only imagine what they might be thinking. I felt fairly safe hidden in the basement, but my mind kept going to the fact that even though the library doors were locked, they had glass panes that a gunman could easily break. I pushed that thought out of my mind and tried to remember that my loved ones were probably more scared than I was.
The first fifteen minutes we spent down there were quiet. Those of us who could searched online to find any news that we could. The fastest information was coming from Twitter, specifically from the Evanston Police Department. At one point a librarian came into the room and passed around chocolates, saying, “It’s all I can do.” We saw a report that stated that the gunman had been reported in a graduate dorm about half a mile away from us.
At that point we all relaxed a bit and tried to find a way to relieve our fear and tension. There was a whiteboard in the room so we played Pictionary. After about an hour we received an email from the seminary saying that we had been given the all-clear, but that we should stay away from the graduate dorm. We left the room slowly, some of us lingering longer than others, unsure whether it was actually safe to leave. I stayed in the basement and called my mom so that she could hear that I was okay.
In the end, the report of the gunman was a hoax. Someone had called in, claiming to have killed his girlfriend. While I was relieved that no one was hurt, I was angry. How could anyone intentionally put thousands of people into such a position of fear? How insanely cruel to make students sit in basements and behind cabinets, left to wonder if their lives were going to end that day.
How have we gotten here?
In a tweet from July 7, 2017, Brené Brown wrote,
Hate is a symptom. Fear is the problem.
We are a country outside of our integrity.
We are brave people who have given in to fear.
Our country is bound by fear. I know I was afraid that day, but more and more I have been recognizing markers of fear in people all around me. I see it in our national conversation on gun control, with one side afraid that they will not be able to defend themselves, and the other fearing that they or their children will be killed in a mass shooting. Both fears are real.
I don’t know what the answer is in the gun debate, but I do know that fear is driving every conversation we have. In those conversations, we do not see one another’s fear or experience what the other might be feeling. Fear makes way for hate. In a tweet from July 7, 2017, Brené Brown wrote, “Hate is a symptom. Fear is the problem. We are a country outside of our integrity. We
are brave people who have given in to fear.”
I am terrified my fear will develop into hate.
I do not want this culture of fear to dictate my life. The Bible repeatedly instructs us, “Do not fear.” I wonder if we can also understand it as “do not live into fear.” Can we be courageous enough to set aside our fears, and for a moment step into someone else’s? The fear may not go away, but how we deal with it has to.
The prophet Isaiah tells us, “Don’t fear, because I am with you; don’t be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will surely help you; I will hold you with my righteous strong hand” (41:10, CEB). He reminds me that our God holds us in our fears. Will we have the strength and the courage to hold one another?