Duck and Cover
The fourth grade students have spent the past hour playing with words, summoning imagination, creating dragons in blue jungles, describing the color of sorrow, the shape of moons, learning to translate the voice of a stone.
It’s the last class of the afternoon, and the classroom teacher prepared me, but I’m still surprised when her calm, strong voice announces, “Duck and cover, class.”
Her words carry me back nearly forty years, to bomb drills in the San Fernando Valley, where a high percentage of local parents were holocaust survivors, and where rumors about Cuba, commies and the iron curtain creased my childhood with anxiety. This was when the words Cambodia, Vietnam and Mekong Delta were merely whispers that hovered beneath the surface of ordinary conversation; yet these places were about to explode into full-frontal television coverage of combat and carnage.
“Duck and cover, class,” she repeats, as if there would be a second chance. The teacher pulls draperies across the northern wall, covering all windows, and shuts the hallway door. “This is a lockdown, different from a fire drill,” she adds.
An alarm is clanging continuously from the hallway. I join 25 students on the floor beneath our desks. Nobody even whispers. The scent of pencil shavings, leftover sandwiches, spilled milk, eraser dust, and mud tracked in from the playground all mingles in the temporary dim dusk.
We are curled on the floor, lights out, in a place where I feel strangely safe. I pretend like we’re all together in a nest. I recall an image from a poem written last year, by a student from this very classroom. She wrote: Peace/like a bird ready to weave/a nest of freedom/to surround the earth. My feet are tingling. I am thinking: if only we could all dwell inside one safe nest of freedom.
Five minutes later and we’re still nested beneath the furniture. The poems we’ve composed are anchored on top of the desks with pencils, edges of books, erasers, as if they might be lead shields protecting us from all forces marching uninvited toward fragile children.
I wonder whether anything that I have been telling the students matters. You will create the future. Write about a better world. Use words to describe your anger, your confusion, your hates, all that you love. Students today have composed poems about aquamarine ponies, talking lizards, the center of a heartbeat, a mask of tears.
Elsewhere in the world, there is never enough time to duck and cover. A man in Somalia cradles his daughter whose legs were blown away by a landmine. A mother in Afghanistan seeks her six lost sons. A couple in Israel crumples beneath an exploded bus bomb. An angry boy bursts into a California library and blasts it with bullets.
The teacher finally announces, “Okay students, all clear.” One long blast of the school alarm is followed with silence. We crawl out from our desks with a hum and shuffle as we reclaim the daylight. Outside on the blacktop, students scramble to retrieve their book bags and lunch pails. Two seagulls engage in tug-of-war over an abandoned crust of bread.
A student asks, “Will we have poetry again tomorrow?” I pause for a moment, because I want to make a promise that is guaranteed to be true. When I was in fourth grade, I remember each night worrying that it would be the last night before Russia obliterated America. I finally answer, "Yes. Tomorrow. Poetry Tomorrow!"
While I collect the day’s new poems into a folio, the students race to catch their school buses.
As I walk out the front door of the school, the regular classroom teacher’s words still echo in my mind, “all clear, all clear, all clear.” At the same time, I think to myself that nothing is clear, nothing at all, except the way an imagination might turn anger into a poem, or discover hope inside a pencil.