Sarah Tollok: Never Go Back
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/54ggrD8JVhc) 31.7.2021.
I remember there being battlements at the top of my childhood elementary school as clearly as I remember the wonderful varnish scent of the wood-paneled cloak room where we hung all our wet and dripping jackets. Puffy astronaut snow boots were lined up underneath, replaced with white and black stiff leather oxfords pulled from backpacks. When it was especially cold, the girls would wait until all the boys went on to class to then shimmy off the sweat pants that we wore under our one piece plaid skirted jumpers, revealing the white, wrinkle-kneed tights underneath.
I remember the battlements so acutely because they played a role in one of my frequent childhood dreams. My classmates and I were trapped in the school and it was under siege. The bad guys varied. Sometimes they were vampires, or zombies, or nondescript barbarians. I don’t know what their beef was with St. Ann’s Monastery School, but they definitely wanted in and we definitely wanted to keep them out. I’m sure Freudian psychologists would have some explanation for it.
But anyway, it was my time to shine. Backed by a killer 80’s soundtrack, the otherwise quiet girl who pulled the sleeves of her monogrammed white cardigan down over her eczema-ravaged hands turned out to be just what the rag-tag group of kids, nuns and lay teachers needed to pull together a viable defense. There were booby-traps in the stairwells made from the gym’s climbing ropes awaiting any of the enemy made it past the metal double doors. In some places, the stairs were removed all together, not even the pipe handrails with generations of layers of paint on them left standing. As “We Built This City (On Rock and Roll)” played over the dreamscape montage, slingshots were fashioned and chair-desk combinations were stacked in barricades. There was a Fred from Scooby-Doo meets Rube Goldberg machine trap that Hansel and Gretel’d the bad guys into the kiln in the basement, roasting them in the inferno that usually fired our painted ceramic Christmas center pieces and Mother’s Day vases.
We even released the gruesome curiosities that were stored in multi-colored formaldehyde jars in the glass cabinets of the old science lab. They reanimated when poured out of their chemical prisons and crept down the sides of the building to horrify and repel the invaders. In more than one version of the dream an un-jarred half-grown chicken, its feathers still attached but stunted from ever fully growing in, took a liking to me and perched on my shoulder as I commanded the scene. When it dried off it was fluffy and almost cute, although its eyes never quite lost their clouded over death stare.
We had bonfires on the roof, and used the huge lunch lady spaghetti and vegetable soup pots from the cafeteria to boil oil. In the case of the vampire iteration, we also prayed over and blessed water, or had the nuns do that bit, then sent that on over the edge. We poured those archaic liquid weapons, you guessed it, through the battlements.
So imagine my confusion and disappointment when I googled pictures of the old building and there were no battlements at all. There were still imposing brick walls, but no parapets with spaces in between for shooting arrows or pouring cauldrons of oil through. Why did I interject those architectural details into my memories of the school that I spent nine years attending, long enough to make the time-honored transition from those dowdy looking jumpers to the much more matures kilt and button-down shirt combination which allowed for the scandalous practice of rolling one’s skirt shorter. What enemy did I feel that the school needed to defend itself from?
Now I work in a school. The original section is only about ten to twenty years younger than my old grade school. Still no battlements.
I no longer daydream about warding off hoards of invaders. Now I tend to worry only about a single person. They are often “lone” in the sad but frequent news stories, aren’t they?
The PE teacher once commented on how I sprinted down the hallway, “like a track star” when I pursued one of my more troubled first graders as he made a tear down the hallway. Ever since then I thought of stretching my legs beyond their natural limits, eating up yards and yards of uneven playground turf in just a few strides in order to prevent a small student from being lifted over the chain link fence by some deranged noncustodial parent, or maybe even an organized van full of sex traffickers. Sometimes my dreams get even braver, and the end of my long-legged dash ends with tackling an “intruder”, both of us tumbling to the ground amidst the clattering of all the weapons and extra ammo on his person.
That’s what we call them during drills, “intruders.” That or “bad guys.” Both titles let the kids know that they are no good and mean us harm, but both stop short of the term “gunman”.
I wonder if other teachers have their hero fantasies as well. Does the gym teacher keep a single metal bat mixed in with the plastic ones in his equipment room to use on an “intruder,” thinking of how he would swing away like he did during his college baseball scholarship years? Does the older male teacher keep a Glock in his messenger bag, just under his PALS testing results and this month’s assigned reading on teaching in a trauma-informed way? There aren’t supposed to be guns on a school campus, and metal bats are never used in the lower grades, but these are just daydreams I am talking about.
Sometimes, when my dreams are not as heroic, I think of the “lockdown” message being sounded in school. I swipe the little magnet away from my door jam that usually keeps it from locking out students. We keep them high up, where only responsible adults can reach them. Then it’s lights out. Duck someplace that is not in view of the door. Keep quiet and hope they pass by. But in this version, I keep my walkie talkie on oh so low. I’m alone, tucked in the comfy “calm down corner” of our behavior support room. No rain sticks or glitter jars can help this situation. They sit on the shelves, still and quiet, holding their breath just as I do.
I hear someone on the walkie, whispering, daring to inform others about the situation. I recognize the voice, a friend.
“They just tried my door but then cursed and moved on.”
That’s the back hallway. I’m in the front corner of the building. My classroom is five steps from an exit. I think of my kids - my own kids that I birthed, that belong to only me and my husband, not the collective “we” of a school. Instead of calling them, I crawl out of my hiding spot. I am thinking of how fast someone could walk from my friend’s classroom on the other end of the school. I don’t have time to hesitate. If they are agitated and walking fast, they could round the corner any minute. I open my door. I don’t look down the hallway. I run like the wind and I am out in the sunshine. I float down the stairs as if I have wings on my heels. I remember another dream of my childhood that involved jumping down the length of my houses’s stairs from the top to the bottom without touching any of the steps in the middle, a feat of grace and dexterity.
I don’t head across the playground, but down a short sidewalk and across the street where there is more cover among the houses. I don’t even have to think about my unsanctioned escape route, because I’ve run it a thousand times in my dreams. I run and I don’t look back. I run through the yards and I hurdle fences and I still don’t look back. Cars drive past. I run by people walking their dogs and I don’t wave anyone down, I don’t tell them about the happenings in the school, I just keep running. I run miles and miles, cross the boundary from the city school district where I work into the mountains where I live. I run on rural highways and then right on past the guard booth of my gated community, the part-time uniformed grown boys with holsters on their hips yelling at me that I’m not supposed to do that. I don’t look back at them either.
I run all the way home. I punch the code to raise my garage doors, ducking under them before they raise all the way, then another code to get in the house. I run all the way up the stairs and into my closet. I shut the door and I breathe and breathe. Then I grab some cash from our mini safe and grab the spare set of keys for our minivan, our vehicle that has high miles but we keep it around for family camping. She hesitates but then starts. My car is still parked in the school parking lot and there it will stay forever for all I care.
I drive to the middle school to get my younger son, then the high school to get my older son. I smile and fib and tell them that I got out early and I want to take them for ice cream. It’s a lie that they are too old to believe but they come along anyway. I find a drive through, need to keep the car running. They know something is up but they each order a cone with sprinkles anyway.
I stop for gas at the old garage that will still pump it for you if you ask them to so I don’t have to get out. I turn off the engine when he pumps the gas but I keep my hand on the keys, still in the ignition.
The boys still don’t know what’s wrong. They start texting their father at work two counties away. He can’t call me because my phone is in my purse, and it was left behind under my desk in a classroom that I will never go back to.
One of the boys is quietly crying. They put my husband on the speakerphone and he is pissed but also very concerned. I tell them to tell Daddy they he should meet us at his mother’s cousin’s lake cottage. I know where they keep a spare key hanging under the eave. The cottage is four states away, even further than grandma’s house.
Then I turn the radio on and sing real loud.
The boys fall silent. It’s evening and the van is casting long shadows onto the side of the highway. The luggage rack on top makes it look like it has battlements.
About the Author: Sarah Tollok is a writer and an elementary school behavior support aid from the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, USA. Her work can be found in Intangible Lit, Second Chance Lit, Orange Blush Zine, Sledgehammer Lit, and upcoming in Dwelling Literary and Corporeal Lit Magazine. She can be contacted at SarahTollok.com and on twitter @SarahTollok.