Code Red

Winter, 2018–2019 / No. 42
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

As soon as the words “Code Red” are spoken over the P.A. system, the kids know what to do. They had practised ever since the Columbine High School massacre, five years ago. Stephen repeats the phrase, “Code Red,” as he sits against the classroom wall, dragging his backpack with him. He pulls out a Tupperware container and removes a lemon wedge to suck on. It calms him like nothing else does, and the citrus scent has a soothing effect on the students.

Next to Stephen is Peter. His mother is the only parent I’ve met so far who is younger than me. She had him when she was only thirteen years old, a detail I discovered in a document buried in Peter’s student records.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said when I first called her, concerned that Peter wasn’t doing his homework. “I care lots for all my kids, but I don’t have time to check homework every night. I’ve got a life of my own.” Later, when we met face to face at a parent-teacher interview, she laughed as she said, “I swear to God, I thought you were white. You sounded white on the phone.”

One thing they never taught us in teachers’ college was that dealing with parents would be one of the worst parts of the job.

Unlike my Grade 12 history and Grade 10 family studies classes with thirty-four and twenty-eight students, I only have eight kids in this Grade 10 class. The course was called Language-intensive English, a two-year program run by the special education department, for students with “learning challenges” in Grades 9 and 10. I didn’t know I wasn’t even supposed to be teaching this class until a new principal ushered me into her office earlier this semester to ask if I had my additional qualification in special education.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Kell, for heaven’s sake. She hasn’t been teaching long enough to get any additional quals under her belt yet,” Michael, the head of the English department, said. “She’s already in three departments. Let her have this one.”

In that moment, I had been grateful to Michael for coming to my defence, and then equally disappointed to learn later that it was only because no one else in his department wanted to touch the course.

“I suppose you could finish off the semester,” Kelly said. “After all, they are ‘special.’”

Her blue eyes lit up.

Special. I hated that word. It implied that my kids were somehow less human than the other students, which, having already taught them Grade 9 English last year, I knew wasn’t true.

“Do you think we’re all gonna die?” asks Alex.

I ignore the comment. I’ve secretly hated him since last year, when these kids were all new to high school. He’d somehow convinced them I’d give them all sars, which had made headlines in every Toronto newspaper for weeks. They started skipping my class. Then the rumour spread through the school and although no one said anything, I knew even some of my colleagues wondered. One of them made no attempts to cover up her worries by wiping down the doorknobs and desktops when she came in after me to teach the same kids math.

“Yeah, I’m not afraid to die,” Alex says, a little too loud.

Would I leap to take a bullet for him and leave my own child motherless? I shake off the thought and, after surveying the students lined against the walls I sit back down in my chair. The clock on the wall is stuck at nine o’clock. I regret not having asked a custodian to fix it earlier. I wonder what the weather might be like outside. April weather was always so unpredictable. At least we’re able to keep our classroom lights on. The room is windowless. In any other classroom, we’d be sitting in semi-darkness.

“What time is it?” Penny’s voice is a whisper, like her whole being. The only reason she’s in my English class is because her father is our school trustee, and his wife had insisted their daughter be exposed to a “regular” English class, even though we all knew it really wasn’t regular.

“Like you’d even know what it meant,” Alex says.

“I know how to read time,” Penny says. “I just forgot my watch this morning.”

I tell them to hush. For all I know a gunman could be rampaging through the school. But it’s too quiet for that. The kids know this. The ones with phones are playing with them. One girl, Jennifer, is buried in our class novel. Children of the River was the one book I knew with an Asian protagonist suitable for their reading level. Without consulting either Michael or the head of E.S.L., I had “borrowed” eight copies of it from the bookroom to use as my core novel for this class. None of the kids seemed to care that the Cambodian protagonist wasn’t white. Instead, they had asked questions like, “Miss, are you a refugee too?” While the question initially caught me off guard, it led to a discussion about identity, cultural diversity, and social inequality that took up the rest of the class.

“What time is it?” Penny asks again.

“Time to shut the fuck up,” Alex snaps.

I walk over to them, take my watch off, and give it to Penny.

“You can be our official timekeeper,” I tell her. She smiles.

“It’s 11:28 a.m.

I put a finger to my lips to quiet her.

I press my ear to the door, hoping to hear something. Anything.

“Do you hear that?” Stephen says. “Helicopter.” He starts sucking on a fresh lemon wedge.

My stomach stirs. I straighten the papers on my desk, careful not to dirty the bell sleeves of my white blouse. Maybe I could get some marking done. I pick up a pen and only then notice that my hand is trembling. Inhaling, I find myself craving a cigarette. I hadn’t had one since I’d given birth three years ago. I lean back in my chair and imagine exhaling, white smoke pouring out of my mouth, nose. What would my students think of me?

Every five minutes Penny announces the time, until Stephen suggests she let us know every fifteen instead. She looks at me for approval. I nod. I envision myself taking a bullet for her, then struggling to breathe. What is it about our basic human instinct that makes us want to protect the most vulnerable? Or the other extreme, to kill them. My thoughts turn to my daughter. A calm sweeps over me as I think about how much she loves to stick Dora the Explorer Band-Aids all over her arms and legs. She enjoys the attention they draw from others.

Half an hour passes.

“Something’s definitely wrong,” Stephen says.

“I’m hungry,” Penny says.

“Me too,” others say.

I open my desk drawer and pull out a bag of chocolate eggs. I’d originally bought them to give out for Easter, but had forgotten them when my daughter got chicken pox and I ended up staying home with her for several days.

I hold it up. Alex comes and gets one before passing it around to the others.

“I’m thirsty,” Penny says.

I shake my head. No one can drink anything, I think. God knows how much longer we’ll be here without access to a washroom.

Suddenly I hear the sharp click of heels in the halls. I hush the class and wonder if I should push the desk against the door. The hovering of the helicopter above us seems to be getting louder, which causes everyone to look up.

“We’re gonna die,” Stephen says. He closes his eyes. Penny does the same, only she’s choking back tears.

I think of my daughter in daycare. Who’d pick her up if I was still trapped? If only the telephones in the classrooms dialed out, I could call my mother and ask her—although that isn’t the protocol. Code Red procedure is to sit still. Keep the kids calm. If they have phones, make sure they are turned off. “You never know,” we’ve been warned by the administration.

“Miss, it’s 12:28 p.m. Exactly one hour has passed.” Penny’s teeth are stained with chocolate. “I’m still hungry and thirsty.”

I picture my daughter playing outside in the fresh air and sunshine. What would happen if a gunman showed up while the toddlers were outside with nowhere to hide? Did the daycare also practise Code Red drills? I’d never thought to ask, and make a mental note to do so.

An hour and a half passes.

Then, two hours.

Shortly after Penny announces the two-and-a-half hour mark, the classroom telephone rings. We all jump. I freeze wondering if it might be a trap.

It keeps ringing. I pick it up.

Liz, the vice-principal, says hello before I do. “Kelly and the police are going to be knocking on your door in a few minutes. It’s O.K. to answer it. Step out of the class and answer their questions.”

“Is everything all right?”

My voice is shaking.

“Please just do as I ask,” she says and hangs up.

I forget until I put the receiver on its hook that we’re not supposed to open the door under any condition until we get the “all clear” message on the P.A. system. My mind races to remember the details of the memos we’ve gotten about how to deal with Code Reds and other crises.

I look up to see Peter’s face lose its colour. The carpet under him grows dark as he wets himself. Stephen pulls away disgusted.

Penny screams when someone knocks on the door. Alex leaps to cover her mouth. She bites him hard, drawing blood. I dash over and use the sleeve of my blouse to stop the bleeding on Alex’s hand. Penny’s bottom lip trembles, oozing blood.

“It’s O.K.,” I tell them, “that’s what the call was about. I’m supposed to open the door.”

“Please don’t!” Stephen’s eyes are pleading. I look around the room to see every set of eyes just as big and unblinking.

The knocking becomes more urgent. I rush over to the door, then stop a moment to compose myself before gently turning the doorknob.

My principal is standing with three men dressed more like soldiers than police officers. Seeing their assault rifles makes my knees go soft. I’m used to seeing police officers in the school but never dressed in full body protection and helmets.

“Please step outside,” says the tallest one of them.

“It’s O.K., everything’s O.K. They just need to ask you a few questions,” Kelly says.

“What’s going on?” I’m still staring at their weapons. I’ve never seen a real gun in person, never mind such menacing-looking ones. Their size and their potential to do damage make my heart race even faster.

“Is everything O.K. in the classroom?”

They’re all looking into my eyes, as if I’d signal something by blinking oddly.

“Is that blood?” one of them asks, looking at the red splotches on my sleeves and hands.

“One of my students just bit another kid. It’s O.K.—he was trying to help.”

They don’t seem convinced.

“No, it’s fine,” I say. All three men take a step forward as if to enter the class. I imagine Penny sobbing, sweat beads dripping down the back of Stephen’s neck, and Alex moaning in pain. Inside my head something snaps. I move to block them.

“You’ll scare my kids,” I say firmly. “I told you, they’re fine.”

“That’s not your call to make,” says the tallest officer.

“Sure it is,” I say. He’s so tall and so close to me, I’m looking up at the ceiling when I try to look him in the eyes. Even I’m surprised by the stance I’m taking.

I turn to my principal.

“You know what they’re like, right, Kell? My ‘special’ kids?”

Her lips are tight. “We’ve still got a couple of classes to check,” she says. A door opens and closes at the end of the hall. Luckily, this moves them along. I unclench my fists, quietly close the door, and then collapse against it when I’m safely back inside. The air is heavy with the smell of lemon, sweat, and urine.

“Are you O.K.?” Penny asks.

I go over to her and wipe the blood from around her mouth. I turn to Alex and ask, “Are you O.K.?” I grab the first-aid kit from under my desk.

“Penny, you weren’t kidding when you said you were hungry,” I say, examining Alex’s hand. “That’s got to hurt.”

“I wasn’t trying to hurt her,” he says.

“I know,” I reply.

He stares at me for a few seconds, then turns away as I take some alcohol rubs to clean the wound.

“Sorry, this might sting.”

“Two hours and forty-five minutes,” Penny says.

Peter tries to speak but trembles instead and wipes his nose with his shirt. I look over at the rest of the class. They look terrified, but what can I do?

I go back to bandaging Alex’s hand. Just then Liz is back on the P.A. “The Code Red is over. I repeat, the Code Red is over. Students and staff are instructed to proceed to their last-period class. An update announcement will be provided shortly.”

The kids get up slowly, sore from having sat against the wall this whole time. Peter’s still sitting. I need to call a custodian to clean up after him. I offer to call his mother to come pick him up, although neither of us is confident she’ll come.

“He can borrow my gym shorts,” Alex says, as he pulls them out of his backpack.

My heart swells at the unexpected gesture.

“Just wash them before you give ’em back,” he says.

Peter nods and heads for the washroom.

“Sorry about your hand,” Penny tells Alex.

“It’s O.K.,” he says.

Turning to me he says, “Sorry about your blouse.”

It’s my turn to say, “It’s O.K.”

At the end of last period, the entire school staff is called into the library, where we’re told that there had been an armed home invasion in the neighbourhood. We’d been in lockdown because the police suspected the robbers might be hiding in the school.

“Just glad I wasn’t on cafeteria duty,” I hear a teacher say.

“Could have been worse,” another says.

“So much worse,” yet another agrees.

“I need a drink,” someone says. A bunch of voices cheer as they plan to meet at a pub across the street.

“You coming?” Michael asks. “You survived your first Code Red, kiddo. Good job.”

He smiles like he’s told a good joke.

I shake my head. I have to call Penny’s mother to tell her why her daughter has bitten Alex. Liz has already called his parents but I still have to fill out the incident report. I should call all the parents, I think, just to make sure the kids are O.K. I look at my watch and realize that I need to hurry if I’m going to pick up my daughter from daycare on time.

Ann Y. K. Choi lives in Toronto. Her debut novel is Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety. Last updated summer, 2017.