It was April 20, 1999.
The customary midday rush of parents and students had finally slowed and the front office was quiet again. I relaxed into the afternoon lull. Through the wide wall of windows, I gazed out upon the balmy spring day. I absentmindedly watched the leaves of the great oak tree that stood guard over the school sway in the breeze; a million points of sunlight bounced from glossy leaves on low plants. The day, and everything in it, seemed to dance; nature had shrugged off the last vestiges of winter, and all its parts moved in an easy celebration of the summer that was soon to come.
But I was thinking of the fall. Student teaching and graduation were all that lay between me and my own classroom. The long days of working full-time in the school system as a paraprofessional while also attending college at night were soon to be traded for the official title of teacher. Desk arrangements, students, lesson plans, and making a difference are what I envisioned as I looked through the picture windows.
“…many are feared dead from a shooting at a Colorado high school….”
This phrase broke through the white noise of the television and snapped me out of my reverie. I rose from the desk to turn up the television.
Haunting images flooded the screen. Aerial views of children climbing out of windows and running to safety. SWAT team members with rifles and full body armor. Terrified parents. Flashing lights. Tears commingled with blood on frightened faces. I stood there in a stupor, my mind not wanting to make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.
The phone rang. In a daze and unable to tear my eyes away from the television, I walked backwards and felt around for the phone until I found the receiver.
I’d barely put the phone to my ear before I heard Frank blurt out, “Are you watching the news?” I said that I was, and we watched together for a while in a stunned silence.
Finally, he said, “You know, I worry for you. You’re about to be a teacher. You’re there now, in a school. I’m a soldier, but I think that you have the more dangerous job.”
“How so?” I asked. The death toll in the news crawl climbed by 5.
“I’m trained to be in situations like this. I know who my enemy is. There’s a gun in my hand when I face them. I have Kevlar and a helmet. But you…you never know what seemingly innocent people has blood on their minds and hate in their hearts. I worry for you.”
I looked up from the television and out to the bright day again. A class, maybe Kindergarten or first grade, had come outside for recess in the church playground at the private school across the street. I thought to myself, “It should be rainy today.”
My tears fell in place of the storm that should have been, but wasn’t.
Though it’s winter, the day is bright and warm. It feels like a farce. It should be as cold and dark as I feel now. The chill in my body has nothing to do with the weather, and the mismatch between the two is jarring. It feels unfair, somehow.
My eighth graders are laughing and hyper and are distracted in that telltale way of an impending holiday break. Part of me wants to scream at them (DON’T YOU KNOW THAT CHILDREN WHO COULD HAVE BEEN YOU ARE DEAD TODAY?), but I don’t, because they weren’t.
Instead, I take special care, in some small way, to let each of them know that I love them. A soft hand on a shoulder. A bigger smile when I greet them at the door. A hearty laugh at a joke that really wasn’t all that funny. An extra nudge of encouragement. A blind eye turned at a thrown wad of paper.
I know what this chill is. It’s fear. A dormant serpent awaken by tragedy, fear has unfurled itself and is slithering paths of ice across my arms. It is standing on alert and making itself known, reminding (warning?) us with a flare and a hiss that at any moment, all that we hold dear to us could be taken away.
It could be when we least expect it, without the portentous warning of a roll of thunder or heavy, iron-laden clouds.
It could be on a bright and clear day.
My heart and prayers are with the children, staff, parents, and community of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.