Last week I had my most frightening moment as a teacher. I've been teaching for several years now at the university from which I received my MFA, and this semester I was given a creative writing course. My class and I were near the end of the session; one of my students was sharing from a novel she'd brought in. Each student is to present a short excerpt of writing from a favorite author.
As my student was reading (a really terrific selection of work by Jodi Picoult), the door opened (we have a pesky door that drives me up the wall—it slams hard-shut without provocation). I looked up to see a tall person enter the classroom; he was quite literally dressed as the Grim Reaper, in a long red velvet cape with a hood that fully concealed his face. One hand held a crudely made scythe; the other was concealed under his cape.
I waited to see if he would say anything, but he just stood there silently, creepily walking towards me a little even after I said, "May I help you?" What I will never forget are my students, their eyes wide as saucers and full of fear, looking from the Grim Reaper to me and back again. I felt terrible that they had been frightened so badly.
Was I concerned, in this era of school shootings? Yes, absolutely. I had to begin to assess in seconds whether this person was a threat—he never spoke, identified why he was there, unmasked himself, or made any gesture to show he was benign. He was between me and the classroom phone also. I never caught the remotest glimpse of his face.
At some point, I fell into that terrible abyss of unknowing what was going to happen next—but I felt to be in a bubble of deep and amazing calm and an almost Zen-like clarity of mind. I accepted that perhaps he had a gun or other weapon, that I could be shot or otherwise harmed, that my life could very well be about to end, and the only sadness I had was that it would happen in front of my students and traumatize them. I didn't sense he was after anyone else, given his facing-and-moving towards me. I knew if he got closer, I would do anything to make sure my students were okay, first, and then me. Yet I wasn't afraid—not until after class was over and jokes were made about the Grim Writer and the Zodiac killer.