If you work long enough in an urban school, you get the feeling that you've seen it all. I've had to intercede in fistfights between parents. I've had to explain to children of all ages where and how to use the indoor plumbing to which they may only recently have been introduced. I've have removed dead rats from behind desks and refrigerators. I've scared live pigeons out of the lunchroom. I've lived through a six hour lockdown while police scoured the neighborhood for bad guys while we attempted to keep the kids entertained and calm in rooms with little or no ventilation, and the absence of that plumbing we already mentioned.
But I've always feared a gun. Some years ago, a particularly troubled fourth grader was rumored to be carrying a pistol in his backpack. It fell to me and the assistant principal to confront this kid, and even though it turned out to be a vaguely realistic cap gun, I remember the slightly out-of-body feeling I had as he reached into the pack and pulled it out. I've read far too many stories about how things like this go terribly wrong. That experience is probably why I reacted as strongly as I did when I found a bullet on the floor of my classroom last week.
A real, twenty-two caliber bullet. Outwardly, I remained calm. I picked it up like I was picking up the candy wrappers that periodically end up on that same floor. This was not the standard litter. This was ammunition. I asked the student whose chair was closest to the bullet to step out into the hallway so I could ask him discretely about it. After an initial flurry of "what?" and "I dunno," I firmly but calmly reminded him that this was a very big deal. It was a lot different than being caught chewing gum. That's when he lit up and started protesting his innocence loudly. My hopes of remaining discrete dwindled. "You wanna check to see if I've got a gun?" I took a long breath.
"No, I just want to find out where this bullet came from. It's very dangerous."
At last, the storm broke, and he gave up his friend, sitting across the room, who had given it to him "to look at" outside my room. When we brought him out into the hallway, I went through a very similar song and dance that ended, happily enough, with a confession. We took the group to the office to be dealt with by the principal. It took me the rest of the day to put my jangled nerves back in order, which is about the same time I encountered bullet boy back out on the playground. He had decided to come back after school to play basketball. I chose not to have an additional confrontation, nodded and went back to my room. On my way out, I stopped by the office and found this same kid sitting there, having been apprehended by our school's secretary while trying to light a bunch of weeds on fire next to the Kindergarten room.
I thought about all the choices I had made over the course of the day. I thought about all the choices this kid had made. I hoped that taking a week off for the Thanksgiving holiday might give us all a chance to reflect and make some better choices. Away from school.