Mass Murder, Fire, and the Power of Pictionary

Early Thursday morning, I rolled over in bed to silence my alarm. I checked my phone and saw I had an international text from my daughter serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. I was hoping for reassuring information related to her safety, and the safe return of 80 school children abducted just two days prior in a northern region of Cameroon. The text read-only, “What is happening in Thousand Oaks?” Assuming she wanted to hear about events taking place locally, I quickly shot back a text saying a new Dave and Busters was being built in town.

It was at this point that automated texts began to populate my phone and interrupt my texting. I read warnings about road closures and canceled classes at the local university. As I started to wake up and connect the bits of information, I saw news coverage on a mass murder that had taken place hours earlier in the city of Thousand Oaks. I sat transfixed watching news outlets and trying to make sense of what I was seeing on TV and reading online. 13 dead as a result of an attack at a local bar on college night. Time stood still, yet the clock advanced, and questions from local parents started saturating social media and neighborhood sites; was it safe to send their children to school? Was school canceled altogether? I got dressed and headed out to Thousand Oaks High School; where I have taught for the past 12 years.

School staff met in the library at 7:45 am for a brief meeting called by our principal. He addressed the tragedy, and let staff speak. He unified us before our classrooms filled with students. As a high school teacher, I have multiple classes in a day. I had the opportunity to spend the day with over 80 students. My classes were mostly full, some empty chairs, but so many students were in attendance. During our allotted class time, we spoke of community, and they asked questions. Some students shared how they found out about the mass killings, or how they were related to a victim or a survivor. I relayed my sorrow that our town had experienced such a loss, and there were side conversations between peers. I told them all I was thankful they came to school on this day.

Students played Pictionary in my classes. Mostly because it is fun and a game in which all students participate, and laughter is a byproduct of scribbles on the whiteboard. Students were communicating instead of their faces transfixed on their phone screens. Teamwork and collaboration filled the space. It was a long day. Each new class of students bought different sets of questions, and my emotional resolve was waning towards the end of the day. I had cried several times, gave and received hugs from friends and colleagues. I reassured students again and again that Thousand Oaks is a safe place to live and we are a strong community.

When the last school bell rang, I was preparing my classroom for Friday’s lessons, when a text came in accompanied by a picture from Jeff, “Get home.” The image was of the house with smoke in the background. I rushed home in thick traffic, driving into black smoke. Arriving in the driveway, I found out we were being evacuated because of fire in our local area. We began loading our cars, trying to decide what was worthy of saving should the house burn down. With our vehicles full, we pulled away from the house.

As of today, fire is still raging, and we are still under evacuation. Schools have been canceled for today. A lot has transpired over the last 48 hours. I am still grappling with the magnitude of the events, all of them, and their impact on myself, my family, my students, and my town. Interestingly, only days prior I had been so worried about my own daughter’s safety. She was now telling me that she feels safer abroad, in a country where armed secessionists brazenly abducted teenaged students in an attack. It is interesting how you begin to normalize traumatic events. My daughter has every reason to worry about her community back home.

I want healing to take place, and I know Thousand Oaks will serve as an example to others in our country of a community pulling together in difficult times. I am exhausted, I am scared, and I am hopeful. I will be back at school on Monday ready to teach.

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I will be at school ready to teach again on Monday.

Published by drpowellpurposefuleducation

I am a special educator, researcher, and education advocate helping parents and students make purposeful educational decisions. This page is a way of sharing my insights, experiences, and expertise on special education issues and best practices, along with highlighting my Fulbright Distinguished Teacher experience in Singapore this coming year. Fulbright Disclaimer- The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.

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