My birthday was a few days ago. I’ve had some memorable ones, but this was particularly unforgettable for reasons I’ll explain.
I’d spent the week working on my latest book with my co-authors and speaking in several middle schools in and around Boise. Ah, middle-schoolers. They’re the “Empire Strikes Back” of the “Star Wars” trilogy of childhood: They experience some setbacks (in mood swings), they sometimes smell like the inside of a Tauntaun, but ultimately they come out hopeful.
We helped them create a story as a class. They decided their main character would be Bob the Flying Bush, who had powers of regeneration, but whose weakness was bananas. His nemesis was Ned, the Fish of Despair, who had just invented the universe’s first banana cannon.
It was tough to rein them in. They were inquisitive, fidgety, talkative and mostly just loud in every way.
So, they were typical.
The kids sang happy birthday to me and one of them asked how old I was.
“Twenty-eight,” I said.
Knowing it was a fabrication, they tried a different tact.
“How young are you?” one said.
Ever relentless, a student asked, “What year were you born?”
Ever stubborn, I said, “1492.”
“How long have you been alive?”
“Longer than you.”
“Ask another question,” the librarian said.
“How old was your mom when she had you and how old is she now?” one boy asked.
Ah, kids. I’ve seen it all, I wanted to say.
But the truth is, I haven’t. Because on the morning of my birthday, before our second presentation, the librarian came over and warned us that we should expect a “lockdown drill.”
I have heard of lockdown drills. I knew both of my sons experienced them regularly.
The librarian pointed to the adjoining computer lab. “All you need to do is go in there. The police know to clear the library first.”
Seemed simple enough.
We started the class, and a few minutes in, the principal came over the loudspeaker. “Lockdown. Lockdown. Lockdown.”
We followed the students into the computer lab.
Once inside, the rambunctious kids fell silent.
“You’re supposed to stay away from sight of the door,” one student warned us newbies.
“And find a hiding place,” another whispered.
One by one, each child found their place, whether it was under a desk, behind a bookshelf, or in a closet.
We followed suit, and hid behind book stacks.
And for 10 minutes, there was not one peep. Phones were silent. Breathing was muted. Under one of the computer desks, two girls were huddled next to each other. The boy who had tried so hard to get me to confess my age was behind an easel, his eyes closed, his knees to his chest.
No one moved an inch.
We listened for any sounds coming from the library.
Perhaps some of you have experienced a lockdown, but for me, it was new, and for some reason the unnatural quiet of a room full of middle-schoolers struck me.
I glanced up above the light switch. There was a small sign that said, “Even in darkness we can find light.”
Eventually, we heard the officers enter the room.
“Is there anyone in here with you,” they asked the librarian.
“No,” he replied. And then when he was reassured they were real officers, he said, “There’s a roomful of children and adults right over there.”
When we all exited the room, he commended the students.
“Well done! I couldn’t see any of you from the door, and I definitely couldn’t hear any of you.”
I’ve been in a lot of middle school classrooms, but I’d never seen a full room so empty, and I’d never heard two dozen boisterous middle-schoolers so silent.
Afterward, they returned to their story, nonplussed. Bob the Flying Bush was now mired in banana goo, unable to free himself. It was the climax of our book, the “dark night of the soul,” so to speak.
Until a magical pair of galoshes saved him.
One student asked if our childhood experiences helped us become better writers.
We collectively answered yes. As children, we’d been through many of the same things they had.
But not all.
Brodi Ashton is a New York Times best-selling author who lives in the Salt Lake City area. She’s also an occasional columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.