During professional development, I found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor of the staff bathroom, tears blurring my vision and my entire body shaking. There are a lot of things you don’t expect when you enter teaching: the late nights, the minimal pay, the multiple roles you must embody to be successful. I did not expect to be responsible for the life or death of my students. I did not come to school that day expecting to have a panic attack as my coworkers participated in a school-wide active shooter drill.

AG, the police officer who was running the training, only referred to himself in third person and only by the initials of his first and last name; we were told we wouldn’t be able to pronounce his name correctly even if we tried.

“AG,” he began, “wishes he didn’t have to run this training, but here we are.” Here we were — crammed in the cafeteria of our school building at nine in the morning being taught how to barricade doors and run. To drive the point home, AG proceeded to show a memorial video of all the most-fetishized school shootings since Columbine.

“We are going to play a game.” The game was simple: we would get two minutes to barricade our classrooms with whatever we saw fit. We were put in three separate rooms and given walkie-talkies. During the first round, he sounded over the walkie talkie: “When I say go, you may begin barricading.”

And we did. Collectively, teachers began pulling bookshelves and desks to the door. The gym teacher took an extension cord and attempted to wrap it around the closing mechanism. It was all for naught. Two minutes later, from the outside, we heard a loud banging. AG was using all his strength to bust through; he failed. We returned everything to its rightful place and joined the remaining teachers in the hallway.

We went through this scenario again. However, this time, the “go” was the sound of a gun echoing off metal lockers. My heart stopped. My breathing pace increased. And I froze.

When faced with life and death situations, your body reacts in three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. AG only mentioned two of these during the morning training. “Which one will you be?” he asked us, telling us stories of teachers who tried to run and died. “Their bodies,” he continued, “laying on the floor; their students stepping over them to escape.” As AG told this story, I couldn’t divert my eyes from the gun that sat so ominously in his holster. I could not unhear the gruffness in his voice, the way every syllable was hardened and stoic. I could not unsee his unwavering stature. AG, himself, embodied the issue that all brought us in the cafeteria that morning: toxic masculinity.

One day in class, as part of a lesson on analyzing gender in literature, I drew a t-chart on my white board. On one side I wrote “feminine”, on the other “masculine”.  A clutter of eighth-graders came to the board and placed post-it notes on each side of the t-chart. On the feminine side: pretty, quiet, shy, looks good, and emotional. On the masculine side: strong, leader, brave, loud, independent, and boastful.

“What does it mean when someone says, ‘be a man?’” I asked them. To toughen up, most of my students chimed. To not be a baby, others said. I followed up with the question: “What do they call you if you aren’t acting like ‘a man’?” A pussy, one student said. Fag, said another. I nodded my head thoughtfully, my eyes drifting to each boy in the classroom, as anger rose to their faces and blushed their cheeks. They were helpless against the set of standards they had no agency over.

I am not arguing that exhibiting masculine traits is a problem in itself; the traits generally associated with masculinity are needed for the success of everyone: male, female, or non-binary. However, when it becomes a necessity to present as overly-masculine to avoid public ridicule, the need to be seen as masculine becomes dangerous and, at times, violent — something mainstream media has began to call toxic masculinity.

Santa Fe High School, the site of the recent murder of 10 children, had an intruder safety plan. Their teachers, much like the teachers at my school, much like me, had prepared for the hypothetical event that became all too real for them. The students and the teachers had practiced locking doors, pulling down shades, and being as quiet as their hysteria would allow them to be. And yet, ten students still died and thirteen students were injured.

One particular student, Shana Baze, died as result of denying the shooter a date: a revenge kill. On the discussion of sex, Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”

Likewise, school shootings are not about killing. The shooters are not attempting to achieve a kill goal. Much like rape, the end goal for these perpetrators is not the offense. The perpetrators’ goal is not sex or death; their desire is power, and rape and shootings are just the method in which they are able to assert that power.  

As men — specifically, white men — begin to lose the social capital they’ve held for hundreds of years, they are experiencing a vulnerability they have not been allowed to feel as a result of toxic masculinity. Simultaneously, they are not equipped with the vocabulary to articulate this vulnerable state. To many men, this is a life or death situation. They can continue to hold on to their power, maintaining a life free of consequences and responsibility, ripe with opportunity. Or they could flee and give into the vulnerable state this relinquishment of power puts them in.

To end mass shootings, intruder drills are not the answer. We must resolve the toxic masculinity that is a plague to our society. Taking away guns is an obvious and easy choice. Taking away weapons, however, only takes away the ability for “mass” violence. Violence, as a result of toxic masculinity, will continue until we get to the root of problem; it is not guns or lack of preparation in our school systems. To end mass shootings or violence at the hands of men requires providing a vocabulary for men to fully express the vulnerable states they are put in.

We must go further. We must talk to our boys. We must embed empathy within them. We must tell them about toxic masculinity. We must tell them it is okay to be exactly who they are. We must tell them that sometimes to linger in helplessness — to be vulnerable — is more powerful than any other feeling they’ve ever felt.