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  • Francis Strickler

The Phone on the Wall

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

By Francis Strickler

Most days, it sits silently in the corner of the classroom—hard gray plastic, unassuming. Like most landlines, I could go weeks forgetting its existence, its most common use a prank by students seeking attention or avoiding classwork. Only on rare occasions does its unfamiliar ring pierce the air and demand, suddenly, our full attention.

 

“What’s up, Mr. Mac? Hey, Ms. Jackson!” JT struts into the room. He walks with a natural bounce in his step, always seeming just about to break into a run, or a skip even. Within minutes, however, he’ll be asleep on the couch. The rapid shift never ceases to amaze me.

 

The rest of the students enter the mid-day Lunch/Advisory period with their own rituals. A quick head nod from Kelvin, a fist bump from Isaiah. Layla, Nora, Lauren, and Angela, always together, their laughter spilling into the room from the hallway long before they arrive, pausing as they enter to say, almost in unison but not quite, “Hi Mr. Mac! Hi Ms. Jackson!” The effect is a short echo of the phrases, quickly swallowed back up as their conversation continues. Then there is Kayla and Jameer, the on-again/off-again couple. Today they seem fine. Finally, Selah arrives, quietly and politely requesting a pass to the bathroom.

 

“See how easy that was? Asking for what you need?” I say with a smile. I’ve been pushing Selah to ask for help more. Sometimes, she’s so quiet she stares at a blank assignment for a whole class period rather than risk interrupting a lesson.

 

“Wow…even during lunch, huh?” she responds.

 

“All day, every day,” I chuckle, “until we make sure you pass that chemistry class.”

 

“Okay, but can you pass me that pass so that I can go to the bathroom though?”

 

It’s a small thing, but over ten years of teaching I’ve learned to lean into the little victories. So even if she still hasn’t brought her grades up as much as I’d like, at least I know she’s gotten more comfortable here. A year ago, the best I could have hoped for in response was an embarrassed smile. Her sessions with the school social worker, few and far between as they may be these days, seem to be working.

 

“Not bad, not bad,” I say as I hand Selah the pass.

 

I’ve had Lunch/Advisory with the same group of students for three years now, so most days it feels like the same basic rhythm, accented in various subtle ways. A new TikTok trend, the latest album release, the perpetual soap opera of high school social drama. Without fail, it’s my favorite period of the school day. No lesson plans, no “Do-Nows,” no Exit Tickets to collect.

 

Instead, I listen to Layla and Lauren venting about their English teacher. I check in with Isaiah about an Arts assignment he has due at the end of the week, then laugh as he and Kelvin launch into jokes about the Mason jar of dinner leftovers I bring each day for lunch.

 

“You know white people love a good Mason jar,” Kelvin begins.

 

“Ouch! Again Kelvin?!” This is the latest in a series of jokes he’s made on the same theme. “First it was the yoga, then it was my peppermint tea, and now the Mason Jar? You’re killing me man!”

 

“Probably got nothing but salt on those boiled vegetables.” Isaiah responds as if I hadn’t said a thing.

 

“Hey!” Michelle aka Ms. Jackson interrupts with an angry tone that cuts their laughter short. “You know we add at least one dash of black pepper.” Her face breaks into a grin as we burst into collective laughter.

 

Michelle isn’t technically my co-advisor, but since I’m a Special Ed teacher with no full-size classroom of my own, Lunch/Advisory happens in her room, and she’s come to unofficially fill the role with flying colors. During my first year at the school, she taught me about “teacher ears,” the ability to monitor the many conversations of an advisory period at the same time, tuning out what doesn’t apply while catching anything that might be of concern. As Kelvin and Isaiah move on to an in-depth discussion of a video game I’ve never heard of, I turn on my teacher ears and scan the room...

 

“Look at this…”

 

“Did you hear…”

 

“What IS that…”

 

“I LOVE it…”

 

At this point, I know these students so well I can spot a tinge of anger in their voice before a conflict even reaches a low boil. I can tell the difference in laughter when a joke is appropriate or inappropriate, or when a student is quieter than usual. Today is a normal day though, until we hear the phone on the wall.

 

Nobody ever calls this phone with news of an upcoming pay raise, or the hiring of a candidate for one of the several vacant teaching positions at the school. The phone’s intercom feature never interrupts class with its abrasive electronic beeping to announce a vast improvement in test scores. When that sound barges into the room, it means only one of two things. Option one is that someone has hit the “Page All” button on their own wall phone accidentally, in which case we will be treated to anywhere from one to ten minutes of a lesson or conversation taking place somewhere else in the building without the knowledge of its participants. Option two is that we are entering a lockdown.

 

Today, it is option two.

 

The phone blurts out its call for attention at 11:03am, followed by the principal’s voice announcing the word with repeated urgency.

 

“Lockdown…lockdown…lockdown.”

 

There are other words, of course, but that is the only one that matters.

 

First, lock the doors. Our classroom has two, one of which locks only from the outside. Who designed the doors this way is beyond me. To properly lock the room, someone has to walk into the hallway, lock the first door with a key, then come back through the second door, which can’t be locked until the person returns. The hallway, of course, being the last place you want to be during a lockdown. Michelle disappears wordlessly, returning through the second door a moment later with a face I can see hiding anxiety under layers of anger and forced calm. Calm for the students. Anger for the number of times she’s asked to have the door fixed.

 

Second, make sure everyone is quiet. Easier said than done with a group of ten teenagers whose lunch break has just been interrupted in one of the worst imaginable ways.

 

“Why would they hold a lockdown drill during lunch?!” Layla says, too loud and on cue.

 

I flash her a look that I hope will say, “This shit is serious,” then say out loud, “I don’t think it’s a drill,” and hold my finger to my lips as I sweep my face around the room, seeking eye contact from each student.

 

Third, gather students along the “safest wall,” furthest from the doors and hallway. Sit against the wall on the floor.

 

I motion for everyone to join me. JT groans in frustration as he is forced to leave his usual spot on the couch. The other students move with some degree of urgency, but he ambles, stretching and yawning as he slowly stands up. I swallow down panic as I frantically wave my arm, as if trying to pull him towards me through the air. When he finally reaches the wall, I glare at him before pulling my phone from my pocket and texting, according to protocol:

 

To: McGuiar's Admin Thread

 

Selah in the bathroom. Fourth floor.

 

In theory, a student in the bathroom during a lockdown should stay in the bathroom, door locked and seated on the floor. In reality, the only school-wide messaging system we have comes through the phones on the wall. Since there are no phones in the bathrooms, Selah has no way of knowing what’s going on. I notice my foot bouncing on the floor and stretch my legs out in front of me, gripping my knees to stop them from shaking. I glance left and right. Students are glued to their phones, most of their faces seem to hold more annoyance than fear. Kayla and Jameer hold hands. Only Kelvin’s eyes dart back and forth between the two doors.

 

Faintly at first, we begin to hear noise from the stairwell just outside our room. It’s still too far to make out words, but the sound of shouting voices, growing closer, is unmistakable. I watch as students begin to put their phones down or type more frantically. I take deep breaths and use my hands to signal they should all try to do the same.

 

The knock comes just as the shouting swells almost within hearing range. Isaiah rises to open the door and Michelle and I hard-whisper his name until he sits back down. During a lockdown, we do not open a door for any reason. Even if it might be a teacher. Even if it will just be for a moment. Even if you think it is Selah, and every instinct you’ve developed over years of teaching is to make sure she is safe, as the noise from the stairwell moves closer and closer.

 

The knock comes again, louder this time, and I feel the students’ eyes on me. I glance at Michelle, who shakes her head. My chest tightens, and I stare at the door, foot tapping furiously into the thin carpet. The knock doesn’t come a third time.

 

For twenty-two more minutes, we sit in silence, breathe, and wait. After the first ten, the shouting stops, or moves to another part of the building. There’s no way to tell. After thirteen, I get a text.

 

From: McGuiar’s Admin Thread

 

I have her in my office.

 

I breathe deeper, still feeling my heart pulsating against my chest. I force a smile and a shrug as students begin restlessly shifting their bodies, hoping to tell them something I’m not exactly sure of. Finally, the phone on the wall beeps again.

 

“Lockdown lifted. All students can report to their fifth period class.”

 

A collective sigh fills the room, a painful mixture of relief, frustration, and confusion. I lean my head against the wall as students stand up to leave, unlocking one door on their way out. Half-finished lunches lie strewn about on tables amid dirty napkins and plastic sporks. I don’t remind them to clean up, and instead slowly bring each Styrofoam tray to the trash, remembering thirty-six minutes too late about step four—pulling the furniture into a protective barrier in front of us. Michelle leaves silently again to unlock the second door. With the room clean, I walk to my office and put my Mason jar in the microwave, thankful for the prep period before my next class. As I eat, I watch YouTube videos, distracting my mind until the email comes.

 

Today, a student became majorly dysregulated…combative with staff…upper school stairwell…

 

…forced to call a lockdown…bring student back to a state of…

 

…please assure any families or students….never any risk of harm to them or their loved ones…

 

Again, there are other words, but my mind races around them, hoping to pull some meaning from the resulting chaos of letters.

 

After thirty minutes, the small group of students I tutor arrives at my office for a lesson on polynomial long division they seem to half understand at best. The next period, it is quadratic equations with the same result. As students leave for the day, the hallways and stairwells fill with the regular cacophony— voices, laughs, shouts, shrieks, play-fights. We funnel students through the front doors and into their buses or parents’ cars. The school is quiet again.

 

I leave without grading or lesson planning, breaking a nearly religious daily habit. At home, I watch YouTube again. In the moments between equally pointless videos, I try to sort through a growing mass of thoughts and feelings. I wonder what can be done, who is to blame. I get as far as deciding that it is not me, it is not my fellow teachers, and it is certainly not our students. Beyond that, I submit to feeling overwhelmed.

 

My heart does not beat at its regular rhythm again until the next morning, or perhaps the next. I can’t remember. I work my way through routines—doing yoga, making tea, brushing teeth. I arrive at school at 7:45, as always. I teach three classes in the morning. Lunch goes uninterrupted. JT falls asleep. Kayla and Jameer are off again. The student from the stairwell receives 20 minutes of counseling, once a week, when the social worker is available. Michelle’s door does not get fixed.





 

Francis Strickler is a “teacher who writes,” originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. His work explores themes of masculinity, identity, and privilege, seeking to challenge the spoken and unspoken norms and values of his upbringing. He is currently based in Rhode Island where he works as a Special Education and Poetry teacher.



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