Dear America: Why?

…in light of yesterday’s events at Sandy HookElementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

SH candle

Dear America,

I fear for us. I see us changing in ways that frighten me. I sat, glued to the television yesterday waiting for the WHY? — Why did this happen? Why an elementary school? Why 20 innocent little children? Why did a 20 year old young man want to kill his mother and all that she loved? Why so close to Christmas?

I looked into the forlorn eyes of my fifteen year old daughter, as she watched intently. I wanted to have the answers for the questions she was looking for.

Before I had children, I recall my grandmother saying, “Why anyone would want to bring children into this world is something I’ll never understand.” I looked at her, stunned, really, as she was the epitome of everything one would expect a grandmother to be. Caring and warm, attentive and giving. I brushed her comment off as being jaded– one, coming from an old woman who was tired and didn’t understand progress. I was so wrong. Instead, she was a woman who understood very deeply, for she’d seen tragedies I had yet to in all of my hope and naiveté.

BUILDING BOMBING

It wasn’t until my son was four years old and I witnessed the Oklahoma City Bombings on t.v. that I first came to connect to my grandmother’s words. I held my baby tightly in my arms as I heard about the pre-school children who had lost there lives among so many others. I watched the devastation. Images that would become imprinted in my mind. One fireman handing a baby wrapped up in cloth to another. A child’s lone shoe amidst all the rubble. The American flag waving, the backdrop, to ash-stained fireman in the foreground.

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Four years later, the horrific Columbine shootings followed. I was home when the news broke, two of my children two blocks away at elementary school. All I wanted was to fetch them and hold them. I recall phoning the school that day to see if they’d be let out early– no early dismissal. When they came home, my eldest had been watching the day’s events unfold on a t.v. in classroom. I was mortified that the school allowed this– he was far too young and too innocent to see the images of students fleeing, running for their lives, some jumping out of windows, and all of the stretchers that rolled through the screen. My little one knew nothing, but he would come to hear the stories. They both had questions. I answered them as briefly as I could trying to satisfy their curiosity and calm their fears without revealing too much detail. We hugged a lot. I came to fear them going to school, from that day forward, into the unknown and into the knowing that seemingly innocent children could be so distraught and mixed up that they’d take the lives of their peers in an act of revenge. Something like that had never occurred to me before this event.

SH 9-11 attacks

Then came 9/11. A day that is etched in all of our minds. For we were all affected in some way. Francois Mauriac writes in the Forward to Night, a memoir by Elie Wiesel, an Holocaust survivor, “It is not always the events that have touched us personally that affect us the most…I witnessed during that dark period had marked me as deeply as the image of cattle cars filled with Jewish children at the Austerlitz train station… Yet I did not even see them with my own eyes.” Like Mauriac, all of my securities had been shaken to the very core by 9/11. The images are branded in my mind like the numbers branded on the prisoners of the Holocaust. The way I lived and thought and believed was turned upside down. And though I had not been directly affected in the way so many had (the survivors, those who lost their loved one, and all of the people who rushed in– the kind of heroism I don’t believe I’ll even witness again), the way I live my life has changed. I am a little more aware of my surroundings, of the people in my midst, of an escape route, of the proximity of my children to me; I hold my children more and cherish them even more than that. I say what I feel even when it’s uncomfortable, sometimes, so my loved ones know what they mean to me.

SH Night

It’s all coming so much closer to home, my home. Both in a geographic sense, this event occurring just a thirty minute drive from me, and metaphorically, too– affecting educators and parents and children.

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Yesterday’s events remind me of how tentative and unfair life is. As a mom, always first and foremost, I can’t help but feel empathy for those parents waiting for word about their children who had not been there to greet them at the firehouse as so many other children had. As a friend, who witnessed the grief of a close friend who lost her nine year old daughter in a senseless fire, I can’t help but think what is going through the minds of the parents who lost their children and are questioning how they died and what kind of pain and fear they endured beforehand. I think about how they go home to a pile of Christmas gifts for a child who will never receive them– they were supposed to bring so much joy, and that joy has been ripped from them. As an educator, I sympathize with all of those surviving teachers who were heroes in the face of evil, but they need to go back to work in that building, they need to mourn the loss of colleagues who were so dear to them, they need to find a way to carry on.

This is what my grandmother meant. For I have seen what she had seen and, at the time of her words, I was still innocent of. The trouble is, children are losing their innocence earlier and earlier in their lives. The stresses become greater and the world becomes colder. Gun laws need to be changed– I was never before a proponent of that. I naively believed that guns don’t kill people, people do. But this 20 year old, allegedly autistic young man had been given guns because he allegedly like to target shoot. What if he’d not be given guns. What if he’d not been exposed to violence at such an early age– those video games and the gratuitous violence on t.v. and in movies. What if, instead of that, he’d been given proper mental healthcare. I know I’m making many assumptions here– grasping. But that’s what we do in the face of tragedy. We grasp. For a better way. Isn’t there a better way?

Through the Oklahoma City Bombings, I learned that there are Americans that hate our country so much that they’d kill, ruthlessly, to be heard. Through the Columbine shootings, I learned that video games and bullying could affect people so detrimentally to lead to senseless violence in a school, where our children are supposed to be learning and safe. Through 9/11, I learned that hate for our country extends far beyond our own borders and lives in people who we consider to be our neighbors. Through the Sandy Hook killings, I learned that it’s all so senseless and I don’t know what to believe anymore.

But, still, I hope. Because I have brought children into this world, and I cannot give up hope for their future.

I pray you will hope with me, too, and move beyond the hope to take action– against hate, violence, guns, bullying, the lack of support (mental or physical) for those in need.

After each of these heinous events, proof that people are innately good is in the coming together we’ve witnessed to help them cope and rebuild. Let’s take that a step further– do whatever we have to (and I’m not quite sure what that is, yet) to end this senseless violence. I believe that any action we take is better than inaction.

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Truly,

A concerned American citizen, mother, teacher…

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BE ONE WORLD

This was the theme of our B-1 day today. Eleven years ago, in response to the Columbine Massacre, a group of students came together wanting to do something to address the horrible incident at Columbine. They came up with a day entitled B-1, a day about students created by the students. Over the years, I have been touched again an again by what I have witnessed by the students at my high school on this day– one that they come together as a whole community with the sole purpose of celebrating our diversity in an effort to realize our commonalities.
Typically, the day begins w/ a panel and a video, both student run/created. The panel usually has about 7 speakers whose speeches generally speak to an obstacle they have overcome. Half of the school sits in attendance of this panel listening attentively to their peers, an often one adult, relating a personal story of adversity, strength, courage… At the end of the panel discussion, there is always open mic time where students spontaneously can come up to say whatever is on their minds. Meanwhile, the other half of the school, is watching a student made video with diversity/ tolerance themed topics– completely executed by a host of members of the student body. Both groups switch. Afterwards, there are break out sessions in various parts of the building; some of these include, a coffee house, open mic, free store, crafts, poetry readings, live musical performances, demonstrations… they vary from one year to the next.
Today exceeded any other B-1 day I have been a part of. I’m not sure of the reason, or perhaps I feel this way every year, then life resumes and I forget only to be reminded again at the next B-1 day. It’s funny how life does that, isn’t it?
I’d like to share some experiences of my day that will last in my memory of it.
In the video, there was a short film about a girl who had died in an accident, but she didn’t realize she was dead until half-way through the film. Revealed was the presence of empty alcohol bottles- the cause of her death. I was amazed at the professional quality of the video and the strong message. The film ends w/ her parents bent over her grave sight, and the girl looking down upon them grieving.
During the video, there was a flash-mob type skit, where students enacted destructive behaviors (peer pressure, drinking, smoking, fighting, abuse, violence, suicide, bulimia) all through non-verbal communication. It was very powerful.
The visual image of a student, who is absent of her hair due to her chemotherapy treatments, holding up a sign that reads “I feel ugly.”
At the panel I attended, I witnessed 3 students of teachers, discussing different subjects:
1) She is the epitome of grace, an academic student, always seemingly put together, revealed how her first relationship w/ a boy was physically, violently, sexually, & verbally abusive and she masked her pain for so long.
2) This student revealed she suffered from delayed development as a baby in an orphanage in Russia before she was adopted which resulted in her inability to bond– this caused difficulties learning, depression– she cut herself to feel better– and several hospitalizations.
3) This young man spoke about his dedication to B-1 day for four years. He spoke w/ a maturity few high school students possess. He gets the meaning of B-1 day!
And the open mic brought out students who realized achieving perfection was impossible, that only when she focused on what she cared about more than others that she truly found happiness, also students who came out as gay or bi-sexual, those bullied and alienated, those who lost friends through death or abandonment. Perhaps the one that touched me the most was the football player who accompanied one of the Best buddies kids up to the microphone to talk about how he found his family at CHS. Then there was the guidance counselor, who will be retiring at the end of the year, who said at the end of his speech about personal, face to face communication, that he had one thing left to say,
“I love this place!”

I can write so much more about my day, but I’ll end it by saying that today reaffirmed for me that one should never ever judge another because you never know what is really going on in another’s life. Also, that people need to go out of their way to be kind, to make a positive difference in someone else’s day.

At one point, I thought about going up to the open mic, but I didn’t because I was emotional, as I always am on this day– not because I was sad, but because I was in awe of the courage I witnessed by so many. If I had gone up to the mic, I would have said that the next time you judge someone, to think about what you are judging, because it always says more about you than the person you are judging.