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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.

Turns out the Reaper simply and silently turned and left the classroom; a few minutes later, someone ran into the room looking for him, as he was part of a schoolwide program on drunk driving (but of course this hadn't been announced to many of the students at my university, and certainly not to me and my class).

I had a severe stress reaction later, starting at lunch, when I began shaking, and the incident activated my PTSD from various incidents in my life, producing insomnia, nightmares, and restless sleep. But the silver lining is this: I came to realize that, if it ever did happen that my life might end, I have had a most glorious fifty years on this planet. In a moment of complete uncertainty, I accepted whatever might happen to me with simply—acceptance. And that is comforting, in a strange way—though I am glad it all turned out relatively well, and that the Grim Reaper decided this time to slip away and down the hall.

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  • Ms. Strega

    Thanks, Victor–I think now, as a week and a half has gone by, that the very worst part for me was the complete suddenness and the unknowing, for both me and my students.

  • Given the real possibility of something happening in schools these days, this story shakes one up (and maybe someone like me a little more, since I am an educator too).

    Glad it turned out so well, but what a “grim” few moments you and your students had to endure.