Morning across America, and the Monday rituals of getting ready for work and school are different today, shadowed by a fear that didn't exist the last time we sent our children out the door to catch the bus.
This morning, every parent will make sure to hug their child, say goodbye, offer parting words that are positive and affirming...just in case it's the last time. It won't be, of course, but it's on all of our minds.
Every parent's worst nightmare came true last Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and it's still so fresh in our hearts that we'll feel a twinge when we say goodbye. We can't help it. It's a collective response to the tragedy and the knowledge that 20 families lost a child to an unthinkable event in what was once a safe haven in every community -- an elementary school.
I cried when I first heard the news and the tears continue with every newscast, internet update and newspaper article, even though my own children are practically grown. I have two daughters, Jaye and Em. Jaye, 12 hours away at school in a big city, is three times the age of the oldest child who died. Em, home from college for winter break, is three times the age of the youngest victim. Even though Em is independent, living on her own, and driving a car she purchased with earnings from a part-time job she returns to during break, she is still my child. My baby.
Last night I waited up for Em to come home from her late shift as a supermarket cashier. It doesn't matter that she's 19 years old, has a cell phone to call for help and a Triple A card in case she gets stuck. I stayed awake to greet her when she arrived home safely because I could. Even though she'll go back to college in three weeks, she's with me now...and watching over her is something I can do.
However temporary this state of grace may be, right now it's in my power to keep her safe. If I can do it, I will. That desire to protect your children never goes away, although you gradually learn to trust them to the care of others before they leave home and manage for themselves. Elementary school is an important part of that continuum.
Judging from the endless parade of still photos I'm seeing on TV, Sandy Hook looks a lot like the elementary school my daughters attended. I fell in love with the school on visiting day for soon-to-be kindergarteners and adored the principal, Mrs. Reed. She was very competent, warm without being gushy, and remembered every parent's name even if she'd only met you once.
When the first school shooting occurred at Columbine, the steady reassurance that Mrs. Reed offered to the mothers who attended that month's PTA meeting was comforting. In the aftermath of that tragic incident, when each elementary school was asked to provide one staff person and one parent to join a district-wide safety committee to develop new procedures, she asked me to be that parent representative.
Years later, I'm still grateful for having had the opportunity to participate in my daughters' elementary school life. At every turn, I did what I could and was glad to be asked. It was a privilege to be part of an environment that had made my children's transition from home to school so upbeat and positive.
Now when I look back on that time -- Em's final year there just a decade ago -- it feels incredibly distant, rendered indistinct by a golden haze of nostalgia. It represents an innocence that we all lost last Friday, an innocence we'll never be able to reclaim.
The world is different today, just as the world was different on September 12, 2001. Although we only lost 26 blameless lives inside that school -- one-tenth the number who were killed in the World Trade Center attack -- this tragedy taught us that our children are just as vulnerable as we are. Maybe more so.
As we send our children out the door this morning to a place we never used to worry about in terms of safety -- an elementary school -- we do so despite the small cry of terror that now echoes inside our heads. Last week in Newtown, when every parent's worst nightmare came true, we all grew up too fast, especially our children.
Watching the nonstop coverage over the weekend, we've gone through our own version of grief and loss . We can't help it. Each of us pictured our own children at Sandy Hook school, huddled in a closet while they heard their teacher and classmates gunned down, wild with terror as they ran a chaotic course away from horrors no child should ever have to face.
As we head out into a world badly shaken by the tragedy of Newtown, may we find that a parent's worst nightmare eventually leads us to one good outcome: a new outlook on violence and the cost of self-protection along with the courage to do what's necessary to make the world safer for our children. If we don't act responsibly in the wake of the 26 senseless deaths at Sandy Hook, when will we ever?
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