Code Yellow

In my first year of teaching in Compton, I had a whole lot to learn, just like any beginning teacher. I had to figure out how to plan lessons that were so engaging and interesting that my students didn't want to talk or misbehave because they were too busy learning. I had to learn that I didn't need to assign thirty math problems as homework when five would suffice. And I had to learn what to do during a "code yellow".

I had never heard of a code yellow before that simmering hot August of 1998, my first in Los Angeles. However, I soon learned that if there was someone shooting in the neighborhood around the school, or if someone came on campus and started shooting, that was a code yellow. If this happened, the school bells would ring in a particular sequence and I was to shut the doors to the classroom and have the students get down onto the floor and stay there till an "all-clear" bell rang. We did not have a PA system at my school so those bells were everything. I remember being very worried that I'd mix the sequence of code yellow bells up with the sequence that meant it was a fire drill. I did not want to be the teacher who took her students outside for a fire drill when they should have been inside for a code yellow.

We'd have unannounced code yellow drills just like we had fire drills and earthquake drills (another new thing for a non-California native). The first time a code yellow drill happened, my third graders immediately recognized the sequence of bells and told me that it was indeed a code yellow and not the fire bells. I immediately ran to shut the classroom door and then turned around to my students. I saw them there, flat on their bellies, so innocent yet so hard in their nonchalance. A few boys were discussing wrestling, arguing over Triple H being better than The Rock. Some of the girls were singing a Spice Girl tune. I shushed them frantically. Maybe the gunman would think there was no one inside if we were all quiet. One student, Santiago, told me, "Don't worry. It's just a drill."

Santi then launched into a story of some of the violence that he'd heard about and seen in the neighborhood. Two minutes later, every student wanted to chime in and share their story. They told me of folks they knew who'd been shot, a cousin who had a gun, random gunshots they'd heard in the middle of the night. One boy told of seeing a gun down in one of the curbside drainage ditches. He'd tried to lower himself into the ditch to get the gun but he hadn't been able to reach it.

A moment later, there was a banging on the door and a voice telling me to open up. I recognized the voice of my principal and remembered her serious instructions that no one was supposed to open their doors, no matter what, until we heard the all-clear bells. I didn't open the door and then, fortunately, the all-clear bells sounded a few minutes later.

Sometimes when I'd get to talking with people, you know the business man sitting next to me on a flight to Chicago or the woman relaxing in a cafe, sipping a latte, I'd mention that I was a teacher in Compton. I inevitably would hear something like, "Oh, you must go to work in a bullet-proof vest." That kind of comment used to infuriate me when I worked in Compton and it still does. It represents all of the images and stereotypes about poor communities of color in the United States.

The truth is, if blacks and Latinos get shot in Compton or Philly or DC, on a daily basis, we are not, for the most part, shocked and outraged. We are not calling for more gun control. We are not questioning why someone didn't notice a troubled kid earlier. Heck, I'll tell you what happens to troubled kids in low-income areas. They drop out or are pushed out of school by teachers that don't want to deal with them. And if that troubled kid gets shot, well, that's life in the hood, right? The unsaid message is that that kid brought it on themselves. You know, they were probably involved in drugs or gangs and that's the way it goes. If only they'd stayed in school...and worked harder than they did, right?

How easy it is to forget what that kid would be like if they didn't have to experience years of code yellows, whether real or practice.

Those code yellow drills repeated themselves regularly over the years I taught in Compton. Those drills, and what I knew people thought and expected of my students, were a reminder of why I needed to work so hard as a teacher, why my students deserved the same education as kids in wealthy areas. So, I learned to lay on the floor and continue the lesson I'd been teaching. I'd ask my students comprehension questions about the story we were reading. I'd give them math problems to work out in their heads.

We'd also talk about college and how it was a wonderful place to go. I'd tell them about how colleges have beautiful green grassy lawns where you can relax and be whoever you want to be. I'd tell them how you get to live in a dorm and listen to loud music and go to great parties and stay up all night without parents there to supervise. I'd tell them that they could go to class and learn about whatever they wanted to learn about and not have to worry about people shooting up the neighborhood or coming on campus with a gun. One time a student asked if there were really no code yellows in college. I confidently rolled my eyes and replied, "No, there aren't code yellow drills in college! People don't shoot each other at college."

It's strange to think that if I was still teaching, I wouldn't be able to say that now. I'd always be remembering that some crazy person could potentially walk into their college classroom and murder them, erasing years of hopes, hard work, dreams and determination.

Thankfully, the thing is that in the years I taught in Compton, my school never had a real code yellow. No one ever walked onto campus and shot up the school. But we were always prepared because of the realities around us.

The reality of violence, sadly enough, is everywhere now. Truly, there is no safe space anymore in the United States.


Malik Akbar said…
That was profound.
Cursed Tea said…
I saw you commented on "heartinsanfransisco"'s blog on the UK banning the holocaust from schools. I wanted to let you know this is FALSE. You can check the BBC and other news agencies.

I am British and am deeply disturbed that this report has been circulating - it is not true and will never be something acceptable in the UK!!!

I just wanted to set the record straight.
Thank you
Liz Dwyer said…
Thank you. It's what my insomniac self has been thinking about all week in the wee hours of the morning so I'm glad I finally got it out.

Cursed Tea,
I'm relieved to hear that that story isn't actually true nationwide, but is it true in that one northern school district? Sadly, there is so much distortion of history that it's not too far fetched to actually believe.
Liz, that's what's up!
Anonymous said…
As always very well said. Thank you for always providing such eloquent food for thought.
Thank you, Liz; The truth of this story brings tears to my eyes. 'Abdu'l-Baha said "These children are all my children." You know the Spanish phrase for the spirit of loving hospitality, "Mi casa es su casa - my house is your house." We need to think of our children like that but in reverse, "Your children are my children," and then love them that way, make every decision, in our neighborhoods, our schools, our lives knowing that the cirlce does not begin and end with my own physical children, my own biological family. The world we create begins in our in our own minds and hearts.
Anonymous said…
Very well written.

Fact is, people ignore problems in poor neighborhoods because it is detached from them, the folks that live in the neighborhoods are not the ones making the media decisions about what problems warrant a discussion and which ones don't.

(Sorry, but I was gonna say DANG, you taught in Compton??? Forgive me...I listened to way too much Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Tupac and Snoop in my youth...)
Anonymous said…
Sadly though, just as the Columbine children, these young souls will be forgotten too...Yeah our young black leaders are being shot everyday, and no one thinks of them, but the reality is, there has been little white kids and little black kids killed by random child shooters alot more recently and despite the news coverage or lack there of, these souls have all been forgotten. Not until someone rich, a senator, the president's kids, not until they get shot, will there be a real effort to crack down mental illness, gun control and protecting our kids.
Liz Dwyer said…
Like I said to Malik, the musings of an insomniac. These truly are the things that keep me up at night.

Sometimes I get inspired by things and this is something that really just lights a fire under me.

Absolutely. I often tell the teachers I support to teach the kids like they're going to end up married to their own kids. Everyone wants the best for their future son or daughter-in-law...or at least they should.

LOL! You know, like you, all I really knew before I got there was NWA and all that. And then you learn that those folks had all left Compton years earlier, and you learn how Ice Cube went to college...and you learn that everything isn't always what it seems, even in Compton.

We see so much violence that we become numb. One story of violence is quickly replaced by another and another. And what would the 11:00 news be without the endless parade of sensationalized stories?
Chas said…
I remember my code yellows down in Compton. Even though the students knew that code yellow meant potential danger, they equated it more with potential excitement and would try to peak out the window when they heard the bells ring. As a teacher I felt like I was constantly competing with the mayham outside for their attention, and these drills just reinforced that idea.
I just read this post more slowly and carefully this time. It is really profound and it sounds like these children were lucky to have you as their teacher. I have also been thinking about the lack of saftey. Humanity cannot run and hide from the world that we have created. We have to change it. What happened at Virginia Tech was a reminder of this reality, much like 9-11 was. I also hope that it makes us more conscious of the many members of our human family young and old who live with the threat of violence everyday of their lives. This nonsense has to stop. Let's make it so.
Anonymous said…

Oft when I read your posts, I wonder where all the Black women like you were when I had daily contact with other Black families. The incredibly myopic, xenophobic, internalized hate-filled things that came out of the mouths of the parents who formed the parenting social atmosphere of my Mid-Western days truly disgusted me. I felt so alone.

Two things...
Even after such tragedies as those which took place at Virginia Tech, that almost routine access to, and support systems in place sanctioning the use of, therapy and therapeutic support, is often not made available in our communities , outside of the legitmately untrusted state government/welfare/child services route.

Where society encourages participation in therapies, or group situations offered through churches or smaller student clubs, in other communities, this urging is missing in our communities. And the participation in the licensed therapies is prohibitively expensive where it is available.

Of course, I am focusing on the "post" aspect of a tragedy, while it is very much the "pre" aspect which, while made available to the young man in Virginia, which actually failed those now dead. Actually failed the young man.

So...for the community, there must be different practices to evince a different outcome. And for the individual there must be a different environment to make manifest the same, and in support of the former.

One more thing: you didn't mention to your kids the sports complexes available at college? the pools, the activities, the theater?

That you mentioned sprawling in open spaces brought back memories I didn't think of as special, just a bit 'different' from the city. But I now see how special indeed it was. Thanks.
Liz Dwyer said…
Yay! You have have rejoined the blogging masses. Avril and the skateboard...that was hilarious! And goodness, that Swedish 15 y.o. can sang! (Somebody please finance Chas' own music magazine.)

Compton...every time I came into your room, you were making it work. But I agree, as a teacher, you're ALWAYS competing with the outside world for that attention. Sometimes I felt like they were a little too excited to talk about who got shot or shot at. You remember, those kids that you just have to squash the story before they even open their mouths.

You added what was eluding me a bit in what I wrote. You're right in that we are now in a watershed moment where we can't run and hide from what we've sown in our world. There is no place to escape and that's ultimately a good thing. It's everyone's problem now.
...and I was lucky to have my students. They were the change I wanted to see in the world.

Lots of thoughts for you...but I'm about to take the kids to the park. I'll reply in a bit.
velvet said…
I don't know which makes me sadder, the events at VA Tech or the fact that children anywhere have to live with the reality of potential violence on a daily basis.

An excellent, thoughtful post.
Liz Dwyer said…
I know. Both make me feel horribly sad and outraged.

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