CHRISTCHURCH Boys’ High School was among the schools in lockdown while police worked to end the Christchurch mosque massacre. A teacher tells Community News reporter Jaime Shurmer of the intensity felt as a gunman opened fire during a terror attack which left 50 people dead.
*The names of the boys, who were locked in their classroom for their safety along with the teacher, have been changed for publication.
“WE’RE in lockdown,” I notified my colleagues who scattered like falling leaves down the memorial staircase at the end of lunchtime.
Sprinting down the unusually empty corridor, I was confronted by a locked Room 4 door and the realisation my keys were inside the room, not on my person.
Fortunately, banging on the door prompted students to open it and I entered, hearing two boys behind me, so I dragged them in before the very solid oak door was locked shut.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realised 9 English were on the floor, clutching cell phones, underneath the tables.
My whispered call for willing hands helped me barricade the door with tables and chairs immediately.
At this stage, unsurprisingly, I felt bereft of information. How did they get there before I did?
When questioned, students told me one of the Senior Masters had alerted them, out on the field, while I was upstairs gathering Level 2 NCEA assignments due at 2pm that afternoon.
I checked my phone and was directed to the school’s website, so the first priority was to put my laptop on charger to receive updates.
Crawling round the floor to check on students, I discovered I had three extras in my usual English class of 30 and was very thankful I’d decided to wear trousers on Friday.
I was also constantly updated on media reports.
“Miss, there’s a shooting at the Deans Avenue mosque. What’s a mosque, Miss”?
It was soon obvious that few students had phone chargers with them, so I advised students to conserve battery life and not text parents just yet as they were being advised via the school website.
Phones were put on ‘Silent’ and shifted to ‘Power Save’ mode as the helicopter presence, as well as voices in the vicinity underscored the seriousness of the situation endorsed in staff emails.
A student assisted me with taping the blackout curtains and the class hunkered down, transfixed by cell phone images and they constantly kept me informed of media reports, commentary from friends and website take-downs etc.
“The Bangladesh cricket team has escaped, Miss. They’re in Hagley Park. They’re from a Muslim country, aren’t they”?
“Do we have any homework, Miss?” Was an early query. “No!” was the emphatic response, white smiles flashed in the dark.
Another concern for the boys was what would happen to the junior dance due to take place that evening.
Thankfully, their anxiety was soon mitigated by an announcement that all schools were in lockdown, followed shortly by a web alert stating that the dance would be postponed until next Friday.
“This guy is live streaming, Miss, he’s got guns in his car…”
While the boys scanned their mobiles and whispered quietly, I reviewed the next likely issue and regretted that a colleague had removed a plastic bucket that we’d cleaned the classroom with a year ago.
Fortunately, I discovered a plastic box which is frequently used for transporting texts to the Library for issue to classes.
Whew! I’ve found the bathroom. Quickly, I informed the boys of our new facility.
When I faced scepticism about how they would use the bathroom, they problem-solved the situation and elevated the toilet on top of the rubbish bin. Initial embarrassment was soon overcome by urgent personal circumstances. “Oh the relief,” was a comment I heard frequently.
“Another mosque has been attacked in Linwood.”
“What’s a manifesto, Miss”?
“Oh, Miss, a car has been rammed in Brougham Street, and they have arrested a man”.
The room heated up steadily and by the hour mark the boys were becoming hot and noisier.
“Take off your jerseys, boys,” I instructed, as I peeled mine off, “and pull your shirts out, it’s cooler, I’m not going to insist on wearing our uniform correctly today.”
Low lighting from screens revealed their joy at that announcement. But give them an inch and they’ll take a mile, and sure enough, the next request was, “Can we take our socks off, Miss”?
The command response of “absolutely not” would have alerted any gunman to our main block location. I appointed various students to specific tasks as the hours ticked by.
Max refreshed my laptop and advised me of updates. James monitored my cell phone for texts, while I checked on students’ well-being.
“27 dead,” one boy said.
”Where did you get that figure from”?
“Well, until it’s confirmed by the police, we won’t know if that statistic is reliable,” I said.
Then I recalled the Paperclips exercise on the Holocaust run by a Texas primary school. This was an appropriate moment to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.
“Your class has 30 students, imagine a situation where 27 of the class suddenly lost their lives and there were only three survivors. You’ve only been together as a class for seven weeks, but imagine the feeling of loss, it would be indescribable.”
“That website’s been taken down, Miss”.
Thank goodness! My next concern was health related, one boy was looking decidedly unwell, sweating profusely in the heat. We had very little water or food, as the alert had occurred at the end of lunchtime.
Pooling resources and rationing what we had would be necessary if the lockdown continued into the evening. One boy offered up his near full water bottle to help his class mate and another shared some food.
Fortunately, after sustenance, he revived somewhat. I broke my only gingernut biscuit in half and gave the pieces to hungry students, but that was the end of my stash.
Suddenly, a phone rang, “It’s yours, Miss” was the chorus. It was my husband, concerned for my welfare.
“You should know better, we’re in the middle of a lockdown!”
I killed the call amid howls of protest. “That’s not right, Miss.” Spot on target, boys.
“Jacinda’s on, Miss.”
So we clustered round to hear the Prime Minister’s impressive response to the unfolding drama. Many had shifted onto low chairs that kept them below the window line by this time.
However, just as many found sitting on the floor uncomfortable, and began stretching and pacing.
As the noise lifted I had to think of ways to entertain them, and remembered my old art teaching experiences.
I rounded up all my whiteboard pens and gave them the freedom to decorate the board. That kept many of them occupied for another hour or more.
Many creative images connected to our house system that were revamped for the athletic sports the day before appeared, were: erased; redrawn; and revised; before new imagery was developed.
“How long will this go on for, Miss”?
“Don’t know, I’m sorry. But we could be in for the long haul.”
A familiar Senior Master’s voice in the corridor asked, “Do you have Joe Martin in there”?
“Yes, absolutely,” and then his footsteps receded. Oops, I hadn’t marked my roll, and it wouldn’t register these extras.
That situation was quickly remedied. “I’m so hot, Miss, can we change into PE shorts”? “Go for it,” I said.
My own wool trousers were scratchy and my shirt was sticking to my skin. “Can we take our shirts off”?
“Not a problem. If you need air, lie on the floor under the tables barricading the door, and see if you can get some refreshment.”
More sirens outside and we were being pummelled by the eye in the sky again…
At 5pm a web announcement informed us that a police briefing was underway and an update would be released at 5.30 pm.
The novelty was wearing off by this time, heat and nervous exhaustion taking its toll.
Recruiting a student to spot for me I opened the top row of windows fractionally to relieve sauna-like conditions.
“It’s a beautiful day out there,” my helper said.
“It’s a pity we can’t enjoy it,” was my response.
Half a dozen students around me watched Police Commissioner, Mike Bush, give the 5.30pm briefing.
Four arrested, three men and one woman. His words were encouraging and reading between the lines, they were saturating the city with police personnel to bring the lockdown to an end.
Good enough for me to report to the class that the end may be coming soon. How soon, of course, was entirely another matter?
Students had been texting and quietly calling parents during the afternoon about making transport arrangements, these exchanges now acquired new urgency. My husband had been turned away at a police road block near Linwood and had retreated to home.
We arranged to collect me when the lockdown was lifted.
“We need to organise ourselves, boys, when lockdown is lifted chairs will go up. David will be responsible for closing the windows, and I’ll need help transporting the toilet, and a doorman to give us unhindered progress.”
Finally, at 5.53pm, just shy of four hours from the first alert, the PA system delivered the announcement we’d been waiting on: “The police have advised us that the lockdown is lifted.”
The lights were flicked on, barricade removed and fresh air streamed in. The boys were ecstatic and raced to right their clothing, put devices away and pack gear.
Others stepped up, took on assigned tasks and helped me relocate our bathroom contents to the Ladies restroom down the corridor.
Unfortunately, we had an accidental spill (handgrips in places we hadn’t counted on), but Michael pitched in and we both cleaned the floor as best we could.
I am ever grateful to the students who volunteered to help me with the worst task of the afternoon.
The experience showed who the leaders in the class were and who could be relied on in emergencies.
Back in the classroom, I drew curtains and rechecked that steamed up windows were closed.
The essay writing handouts were all over the place and had to be collected. A few chairs needed to be put up and three jerseys; an empty drink bottle; an exercise book; and a board full of creative imagery were the remains of our four hour incarceration.
Cleaning up and waiting a further hour and a half for my husband to drive the four and a half kilometres under gridlock conditions gave me time for considerable reflection beyond the incredible feeling of desolation and devastation that the people of our city had experienced again.
I am so proud of our boys and the way they cared, shared and supported each other and their teacher.
Their empathy and understanding of the traumatic situation, which they had witnessed in real time, and stayed in touch with, as events developed, were utterly impressive.
— Donations for the affected families are being collected by the Christchurch Foundation’s Our City Our People Fund at https://christchurchfoundation.org.nz/giving/our-people-our-city-fund/donate