I spent the last 14 years of my 29-year teaching career at McAllen High School. I still remember pulling up to McHi one day last year, suddenly putting my foot on the brake, gripping the steering wheel, and staring. What in the world? Surrounding my beloved campus was a tall, wrought-iron fence. My heart sank.
First, full disclosure. During my sixth-grade year, my school was taken hostage by a group that had robbed a local sporting goods store as they made a desperate attempt to evade arrest. I can still close my eyes and see myself and my classmates sitting on the floor of our classroom. I remember the fear, the sound of gunshots, the tears. I remember the SWAT team lining the hallway and leading us outside to our terrified parents after police killed one of the gunmen and the others surrendered. Last year when I took a concealed-carry class, the classroom portion was a breeze. But when we walked into the shooting range, each time I heard a gunshot, my limps shook, and I wanted to cover my ears. I didn’t realize until I got to my car that my body seemed to be remembering that day.
I want to be clear. I completely understand why McAllen ISD and school districts across the country have installed such fences. In fact, since I retired, I have visited a number of schools that have gates around their buildings that are completely locked. Visitors must pull up to a box with a keypad, like those you find outside a gated community, and push a button that rings the front office,. Many schools have their front doors unlocked but then have a second set of doors that are locked and prevent people from entering the office area and school hallways without being buzzed in.
So you might be wondering why I didn’t welcome the tall, wrought-iron fence surrounding McHi. Because when I saw it, I wondered how I would flee the building if I were still teaching and a school shooting occurred. To me, it was more about how I would escape than it was about keeping potential killers out.
I contacted a couple of my friends who are still teaching at McHi to see how they felt about what felt like “prison walls” to me. Both responded immediately, insisting the fence made them feel significantly safer. Especially, they said, with a police officer on guard in the parking area once again. (Budget cuts several years ago resulted in that position being cut.)
In the early 60s when the current McHi was built, district officials did not have to worry about school shootings. Thus, having countless doors leading inside must have seemed like a convenience. Today, those same doors scream danger.
I can’t help but feel grateful that I retired because I know my need to plan an escape would be thwarted by those wrought-iron fences. I am also grateful that McHi, schools across the Valley, and schools across the country have prioritized safety for our students and for school district employees.
But I sure do miss those days….
Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Photo by Sarina Manahan)