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Remembering Sandy Hook-3The news is full of the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. The news is full of what hasn’t changed. True, some safety measures have been put in place. Some school districts have armed teachers, hired more security, or added mental health services. Many, like my own, have done nothing. What has changed is that those 20 children and six adults shot by Adam Lanza are no longer alive. They are what is missing from the picture a year later.

I find it hard to explain why every time I hear about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, my eyes fill with tears. Each time I see a picture of that classroom of first graders or the slide show of individual pictures of smiling toothless six and seven year olds, I begin to sob. Hard, gut wrenching sobs. I am not a weeper. I don’t randomly start to tear up over little things. I don’t cry in public. Only a few of my really closest friends have seen me shed a tear. The conversation of these murders put me over the edge, every single time.

Perhaps I cry because I taught second grade for thirteen years and always watched the first graders, my future students, with glee and, sometimes, dismay. They were joyous learners. They were beginning to read, learning to add and subtract, they dressed up as their favorite book characters, and forming friendships in that way which only begins to happen when you are six. They were zany and silly. They held hands in the hall, yes, even the boys. Their potential amazed me and I could hardly wait to get my hands on them.

This is who was shot. Not a couple children but an entire classroom. The placid as well as the quirky. The brilliant and the struggling. Some were toothless, or had humongous teeth, too big for a face, or wiggly baby teeth that will never be put under a pillow. Every single bright light in that classroom went out that day.

Perhaps it is that their teacher and five other adults were killed that day, also. Teachers, who were the problem with all that is wrong with schools, suddenly became heroes. I ask you, what teacher wouldn’t have stepped between a gun and her classroom of children? Our job is to teach them but always, foremost, to protect them. How could anyone who spends day-in and day-out with children not feel that? How could the media be so surprised?

Perhaps, it is because we get lost in the morass of Common Core or scripted lesson plans. We are overwhelmed by the crazy checklists of administrators. We wonder why we are attacked by people who have never done our jobs and marvel at how unaware they are of what education is. Yet underneath it all, we teach because our connection with children is what makes all the garbage thrown at us, worth it. Teachers know the future of our world depends on our students. We depend on the future of our students.
Perhaps, it is because what happened that day was my worst nightmare as a teacher. Every single time we practiced a lock-down, I imagined a person with a gun coming into my classroom. What would I do? My room was next to the girls’ bathroom and my job was to clear it. Anyone in there would join my class. It made me feel vulnerable to have to leave my door and room unattended for the few seconds it took to check for anyone in the john. But those girls needed to be safe, too. Once the door was locked, we sat quietly as far from the door as possible. Usually, I read a book. I knew it was a drill but the likelihood of such a thing felt more real than a tornado hitting us. (Tornados rarely touch down in my city.)

Perhaps it is because one year on the second day of school, a few minutes before dismissal, a dad appeared at my classroom door. Usually, they call from the office before a parent comes up but it was a new school year and I thought it was an oversight. He wanted to take his child home early. I had heard this dad was a problem but no real details. Here he was at my door, wearing a police badge and a shoulder holster with a gun. I thought, “Great. A jerk and a cop. Wonderful combination.” After telling him in the future the child would need to be dismissed with the class, I let her go. A few minutes later, another teacher who knew that, in fact, this dad wasn’t a cop but a felon, saw the man leave the building with his child. He notified the office and called the police.
The police found the dad at home with his child watching television. The coffee table was covered with guns. There was a restraining order filed to keep the dad off our school grounds and, thankfully, he honored it. I’m sure he entered the school that day from a side door, probably let in by another parent in the hall who recognized him. I was pretty rattled by the whole incident but I had my hands full that year and I moved on. I never once forgot, however, how close it had come to me and mine.

I don’t know which of these things is my trigger for the tears. I just know my heart is full of the loss of what could have been. Every year, I read Kate DiCamillo’s book Because of Winn Dixie to my second graders. Every year, we paused over a paragraph where the main character, India Opal, is missing her run-away mama. She says, “Thinking about her was the same as the hole you keep on feeling with your tongue after you lose a tooth. Time after time, my mind kept going to that empty spot, the spot where I felt like she should be.”

Today, in my mind I see those smiles of first graders and the adults who were there to protect them. I keep thinking that there was a message we were supposed to get from all this and we have missed it. Time will diminish the hole caused by the shooting, but it will never completely go away. I am sending peace and healing to the families of all of the victims of Sandy Hook.

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao Tzu Lee-Ann Meredith is a second...

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