The Power of Words

Kevin sat at his desk, grading the essays that his students had written that day. While he loved teaching, there were days and times when he hated his students. Maybe not hated. But greatly disliked. Today was one of them.

Paper after paper was filled with grammatical errors that an elementary student should have mastered. These were college prep seniors. They all should be able to construct a basic sentence that made sense. Take a position on a topic that was logically presented and defended. But not this year’s bunch. It was as if they had all skipped language instruction as little kids and jumped straight into his version of hell. How were they going to succeed in college next year? Kevin imagined all of them dropping out and slinging burgers at the local fast food shops.

He couldn’t give them all failing grades. He wanted to. But Kevin knew that not only would his students protest, but so would the parents. He sat back and imagined the angry hordes storming the principal’s office, demanding his termination. Or, in absence of that, regraded papers. The principal would most likely call Kevin in for a talk. Then demand changed grades.

That’s when he heard the popping sounds that reminded him of the interminable explosions of fireworks that rocked his normally quiet neighborhood in the weeks preceding the Fourth of July. Kevin cocked his ear to one side and looked toward his classroom door. The noise seemed to be Just outside in the hallway.

What was the protocol that he was supposed to follow? Kevin knew he shouldn’t open the door to look into the hallway. He was supposed to lock it. Turn off the lights. Go to the furthest spot away from the door. So what did he do? Kevin picked up his key and tiptoed to the door. Listened. Nothing out there, or so he thought. Just as he started to insert the key, the door was jerked out of his hand. Two students tumbled in. A boy and a girl.

“There’s a shooter out there,” the boy said. “I saw him. He’s coming this way. We’ve got to hide.” He grabbed the girl’s hand and pulled her to the front of the classroom. They ducked behind Kevin’s desk and scrambled underneath.

Kevin watched them, eyes open wide. He just violated one of the most basic precepts of an intruder drill. He was not to let anyone in the room. Not even random students seeking refuge. After all, the way things were going, these two kids might be the shooters themselves. Can’t change that now. The damage was done, as the saying goes. So Kevin put his key in the lock. Started to turn it.

Once again, the door was pulled out of his grasp. Thinking it was another random student seeking refuge, Kevin automatically stepped aside. Almost in a welcoming way.

He saw the gun first. Knowing nothing about guns, Kevin couldn’t say whether it was a hunting rifle or an automatic weapon of some kind. It had a long, shiny grey barrel that pointed right at his chest. “Stand back, old man,” the holder of the gun said.

Kevin took several steps back, his hand still extended as if to lock the door. He felt his body go rigid as panic set in. He couldn’t think of what to say or do other than comply, so he moved back another few steps. “Please don’t shoot,” he said in a shaky voice.

“Shut up,” the man said as he closed the door behind him. The man leaned against the opaque window in the door as if he could see through it. He couldn’t. It was that cloudy. But it didn’t stop the man from trying.

Kevin moved to his desk and was about to sit in his chair when he saw the feet of the two kids sticking out from underneath. He leaned against the white board, hands holding the tray that at one time, before everything was modernized, held chalk. As if that was what he had planned all along. Kevin thought he heard shouting out in the hall, but he was too far away from the door to know for sure. He hoped it was the police.

Kevin, for the first time, really looked at the man. He had a bandanna tied around the lower part of his face, concealing his mouth and chin. His hair was gone. Just a shadow of what must have been brown hair remained. His ears stuck out like wings. Large ears. Elephant ears. Narrow head. The incongruity tickled Kevin and he had to stifle a chuckle. The man was like a comic-book creature. All he needed was a clown’s outfit.

There was nothing special about the man’s clothing that screamed terrorist. Gray hoodie that could be zippered, but wasn’t. Jeans, slightly faded around the knees, but not baggy. White ankle-high tennis shoes. He looked like the hundreds of students who roamed the halls. In fact, if it weren’t for the mask and the gun, he would have blended in perfectly.

The man turned and pointed the gun at Kevin. “Get down on the floor,” he said as he moved into the room. His eyes scanned from one side to the other. “Are you alone?”

“Yes,” Kevin said as he sank to the floor.

“You’re lying.”

“No, I’m not.” The girl let out a moan that Kevin hoped the man did not hear.

The man strode toward the desk. “Who’s that? Who made that noise?”

The girl tried tucking her legs further under the desk, but was only able to move them a fraction of an inch.

When the man came even with Kevin, he growled. “Get out from under there,” he shouted, “or I’ll shoot.”

Kevin nodded toward the boy and girl, encouraging them to come out. That might not have been the right thing for him to do, but what other options were there?

The girl emerged first. Tears streaked her cheeks and her long hair was disheveled. Her white t-shirt was damp under her chin, like she had been crying for some time. She scooted as close to Kevin as she could.

“Is there someone else under there?” The man stared at the girl. Her eyes flicked momentarily at the boy, then up to the man’s face. It was just enough of a tell that the man knew. He fired a shot at the underside of the desk. Not really aiming at anything. More of a warning. Or an instruction.

The boy slid out and sat next to the girl. He grabbed her hand and held it tightly in his.

Kevin knew then why the kids had been in the hall. Making out. Getting in a few last minutes kisses and gropes before being too late for class.

“Keep quiet,” the man said, “or I kill you all.”

Kevin was glad that the kids didn’t say anything. He didn’t doubt that the man would shoot. After all, he had heard shots when he was sitting at his desk. Even so, he glanced in the direction of the kids, willing them to be silent.

The boy was clean cut. Neatly combed blond hair. Shirt with a collar and khaki slacks. He reminded Kevin of one of his former students, a kid named Jonathan who had earned a scholarship to Princeton. Jonathan had been a bit of a geek. Into computers. But this kid looked like more of an athlete. Cross country maybe. Long and lanky. Muscular thighs. Narrow shoulders.

“Where’s your tape?” the man said.

“What?” Kevin asked.

“Your tape. Get it out and wrap it around their hands and ankles.” The man rolled Kevin’s chair over a few feet and sat down heavily. As if exhausted from running.

“It’s in the cabinet, over there,” Kevin said as he looked at the opposite wall. “Can I go get it?”

The man nodded. The nozzle of the gun pointed at Kevin. “No funny stuff. Just get the tape and come back.”

Kevin got to his feet and slowly went to the cabinet. He quickly found the masking tape and turned around.

“Not that kind of tape,” the man said. “That’s useless. Duct tape. Find that.”

“I don’t have any,” Kevin said. “This is it. The only tape I’ve got.”

“It will have to do,” the man said. “Hurry up. I don’t have a lot of time left.”

Kevin did as instructed. He bound the two kids up. Hands behind the back and ankles pointing forward. Then the man put down his gun and wrapped the tape around Kevin as well. When finished, he picked up his gun and sat back on the chair. He sighed.

“What’s your name?” Kevin asked the girl.


“Jose,” said the boy.

“Shut up,” the man yelled. He squirmed nervously on the chair. Almost like he had to use the restroom.

Kevin smiled at the two kids. He felt sorry for them. It wasn’t fair that this guy had barged into their lives. Stolen their childhoods in an ill-thought act.

But what could Kevin do about it? He was not a strong man himself. Never worked out. Probably couldn’t bench press much of anything, let alone take on a hefty guy brandishing a gun. Kevin looked out at his classroom. Orderly rows of desks, that earlier had been occupied by students who thought they were brilliant. God’s gift to education. Now there was only random pieces of paper on the floor and dust motes floating in the air.

“What’s your plan?” Kevin asked the man. “You can’t hide in here forever.”

The man rubbed his hand over his scalp. “I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”

“You could let us go. We haven’t done anything to you. We’re nothing to you but baggage.”

The man rocked back and forth, back and forth. His hands shook and perspiration broke out on his forehead.

“Eventually the cops will come in here,” Kevin said. “When they see your gun, they’ll shoot. Is that what you want?”

The man shook his head. “Naw, man. I don’t want to die.”

“Did you hurt anyone?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then the cops will go easy on you. Think about it. Just put down your gun and walk out of here.”

The man looked at Kevin as if seeing him for the first time. “Do I know you?”

“Maybe,” Kevin said. “Did you go here?”

“Yeah. A few years ago. I graduated and everything, but can’t get a job.”

“So why are you here?”

“I got mad. It’s all Mr. Granderson’s fault.”

“Why?” Kevin asked.

“He was supposed to teach me welding so I could work in my uncle’s shop. I tried, but never got it.”

Kevin thought about this. He had heard that Granderson was a lazy, incompetent teacher. That he didn’t each anything. Put on movies every day. His students never did well when they went on to ROP classes. Admin had tried firing him, but Granderson had been around too many years. Now all they could hope for was that Granderson would retire.

“How would shooting him make things better?” Kevin asked.

The man shrugged. “I guess it wouldn’t, but now I’m stuck. The cops will come in here, see the gun, and kill me.”

“Not if I take the gun. Not if I open the door and walk you out.”

The man’s eyes rolled up to the ceiling. “You’d do that for me?”


“Why? You don’t know me.”

“Maybe not, but I’ve known kids like you. Never got a fair shot at life. Single parent, probably your mom. She came home late. Usually you were in bed by the time she got there, so you raised yourself.”

The man nodded. “Yeah. She’s a good mom.”

“Think about her, then. How she would feel if she saw you right now.”

“Oh, man, she’d be mad.”

Kevin sat quietly, letting the man think about things for a bit. When the man stood up, Kevin leaned away and ducked his head without thinking about the kids next to him. “What are you doing?”

The man placed the gun on Kevin’s desk, then leaned over and unwrapped the tape from Kevin’s ankles and wrists. “You’re going to walk me out, like you said.”

Kevin smiled encouragingly. He stood and shook out his arms. “Okay. Let’s take it easy. I’ll go first. Open the door slowly and look out in the hall. You stay back.” When the man nodded in agreement, Kevin walked to the door. He opened it a crack and saw SWAT police in the hall. “Don’t shoot me,” Kevin said. “The guy’s in here. He’s put his gun down and is coming out.”

The police held their guns high and nodded in agreement.

Kevin opened the door wider and stepped into the hall. The man followed, hands held high. Within seconds the police had him restrained. One of them came into the classroom and picked up the gun. He quickly checked the teenagers and then left.

Kevin gently closed the door and breathed a sigh of relief. He removed the tape form the kids and helped them stand. “You’re okay,” he said. “It’s safe to leave now.”

“You’re brave,” Jose said. “Thanks for saving us.”

“Yeah,” Marissa said. “I thought he was going to kill us.”

“Go on, now,” Kevin said. He watched as they walked hand-in-hand out the door. He sat down at his deck and thought about the papers he still had to grade. “No way. I’m going home.” Kevin packed up his briefcase, picked up his lunch bag and walked out the door. He felt proud of himself. Just like he told his students to do, he had used his words. And it had worked.

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