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Code Red: My three minutes of school lockdown

CELIA KRAMPIEN/The Globe and Mail

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I'm not thinking of school shootings as my husband, Josh, and I walk our kids to school. I'm just reminding myself to buy bananas and some fun napkins for tonight's dinner party. But first I have my volunteer shift reading with the Grade 2s.

Josh and our daughter, Rose, head to her kindergarten class. While I remind our son, Jake, to give his Grade 1 teacher his skating permission slip, the secretary announces there will be a Code Red drill today. Had I been listening, I would have felt reassured that the school is preparing for a crisis of that magnitude. But I am not listening.

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I kiss Jake goodbye and march straight to the resource room for my reading shift. It's 9:10 a.m.

I check my roster for the day: Theresa, Andrew and Lenny, our seven-year-old neighbour and friend.

I read alone with each child, starting with Theresa, a new arrival to Canada. She learns the words "slide" and "swings." I have trouble conversing with Andrew, a sweet ESL student from China, but his reading is surprisingly decent.

Then it's Lenny's turn. Lenny and I are halfway through Spider-Man – The Amazing Story when, without fanfare, the principal announces, "The school is in Code Red. This is a Code Red school lockdown." It's 10:16 a.m.

My brain tells me this cannot possibly be true but I have to look at the facts:

1) The principal has announced a Code Red school lockdown.

2) Principals don't joke about Code Reds.

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This is real.

Two years ago, Yvonne, the volunteer co-ordinator, briefed me on Code Reds. "If the principal announces a Code Red, it means there is an imminent safety threat inside the school. Lock the door, turn off the lights and hide with the children," she said.

I walk to our classroom door, kick the door jamb up and close the door. There is no lock. I turn off the lights. "Okay, Lenny, this is going to be a bit weird but we're going to hide," I say.

Lenny, whose impish eyes are always smiling, complies easily. I direct him to an opening between two bookcases and right behind the door frame leading into our room. He crouches close to the wall beside me. The "killer" will only see us if he comes right into our room, in which case I will fight him to the death.

We wait in silence. I am on the school's third floor. Rose is on the second floor. Jake is on the ground floor. I need to let Josh, working from home one block away, know what's happening.

With wild eyes (I'm guessing – only Lenny knows for sure) and shaking fingers, I send Josh four texts: Code red at school. Call 911. In lockdown with Lenny in classroom. Love you. It's 10:17 a.m.

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I worry that I am freaking Lenny out.

"Are you excited about Santa Claus coming?" I whisper. "Would you like to play hockey with us during the Christmas holidays?" I don't really listen to either answer.

No reply from Josh yet. I set my phone to vibrate. The school is still silent. We wait.

The principal's voice comes on the loudspeaker again. "The school is in Code Green," she says. Thank God. My beautiful, comforting routine, and life, continue rolling along.

I text Josh, "All good now." It's 10:19 a.m. In only three minutes, my imagination went on quite a trip.

"I have to call Josh," I say. My poor husband … if he even got my texts.

"Hi, it's me," I say. "It's Code Green. Everything's fine."

"It was a drill!" he tells me.

"It was a drill?!" I ask, incredulous.

"It was a drill," Lenny adds.

"You knew it was a drill?!!!!!" I bark at Lenny.

"Where are you?" I ask Josh.

"I'm walking home from the school."

"What happened?" I ask.

"I ran to the school and it was dead quiet. I sneaked in and saw the janitor strolling down the hallway. I waved him over and whispered, 'Is it in lockdown?'" he recounts. "He said, 'It's a drill.' I said, 'I don't think so. I just got a text from my wife …' He laughed and assured me it's a drill."

"Oh boy … Did you call 911?" I sheepishly ask. He didn't.

"Why not?" I ask, relieved though slightly offended that he didn't call. I wonder if he took it seriously.

"Are you kidding me? When I got the texts, I grabbed my phone and ran to the school. I thought about getting our baseball bat but I didn't have time. What if there was a shooter? I am the first responder!"

I am shocked by his intense response. But I consider the facts he faced: "Code Red at school." The school every member of his family was in. "Call 911".

The embarrassment I feel for not knowing this was a drill is matched only by the love I feel from his reaction. For an agonizing 180 seconds, we were alone in this together. Isolated, but completely united. Me and him against an imagined grim reaper.

I feel part fool, part heroine, praying for a Code Green world.

The names of students have been changed.

Diana Sarkis lives in Vancouver.

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