20 Empty Desks

Image from texastribune.org

Image from texastribune.org

Yesterday, as I ate my oatmeal and performed the daily ritual of reading my horoscope, 20 elementary school children in Newtown Connecticut were shot to death at point-blank range.

When I saw the headlines– buzzing urgently in a series of text message updates from the New York Times–I didn’t know what to feel.

First there was guilt. The thought that I sat there, secluded on a Hill in a bubble of Liberal Arts Education as 20 families felt the weight of the world give out beneath their feet. They ran to that filled Firehouse haven of survivors, only to be pulled aside.

Around me, college students buried their noses in books and stared with eyes glazed over by the blue sheen of computer screens. Final exams don’t stop for tragedies halfway across the country.

Then there was disbelief. Disconnection. Feigned normalcy. The everyday habits carried out, but the feeling that they were twisted and wrong. Legs pounding on icy sidewalk squares on an afternoon run, I wondered what they’d eaten for breakfast–those twenty children under age 10. What clothes had they worn? Who had kissed them on the cheek? What stories were read the night before, tucked safely away in bed?

I stopped and walked–taking in the suburban houses around me. Christmas trees framed in paned windows and reindeer figurines in front yards. I thought about the presents  hidden by parents in the backs of closets in that Connecticut town. Santa would never come. How many gifts would go unopened–breaking hearts with every untouched bow?

I began to put the tragedy into the terms of what I know. What if Newton had been Northfield? Or my hometown of Whitefish Bay?

In an Atlantic article written today, the demographics of this idyllic community felt eerily familiar: “The town’s median household income is $86,553, well above the state average of $53,935, which is one of the highest in the country. The high school graduation rate hovers around 95 percent, seven points above the state average.” The town is more than 300 years old–its citizens gathering for holiday parades several times a year. This is the fairytale town associated with the American Dream. According to Newtown’s Wikipedia page (and the 2000 census,) more than 95% of the town is White. The school district is amongst the top 5 in the state. For all of these reasons, the actions of a 20-year old shooter with a deranged mind become increasingly incomprehensible. Newtown was a fairytale. Today it is a nightmare.

Last night, Twitter and Facebook feeds exploded with grief and empathy across the globe. There are op-ed pieces and blog posts about gun control and the inundation of shooting-spree tragedy that has plagued our headlines over this past year. Curled in this red armchair, watching  December rain fall onto clotted brown snow outside student union windows, I take in the world’s reaction in real time on my 13″ computer screen.

As a 22-year old college student, where do I fit in to all of this? How do I transform the twisted feeling in my gut into something worthwhile? Someday, how will I talk to my future children about events like these… the Columbines and the Auroras and the impossibility of guaranteed protection?

I remember sitting in front of the TV screen on September 11, 2001. I was 11 years old, and my parents sat on either side of me. The headlines took up half the newspaper page on our red kitchen counter. I learned what a terrorist was–feeling the weight of knowing that if someone really wanted to hurt me (willing to sacrifice their own life in the process,) they could. This same feeling is being experienced today not only by the survivors of yesterday’s shooting, but the children across the country whose parents sat them down and attempted to explain the images flashing across TV screens.

On Tuesday morning, I will walk a mile and a half to Greenvale Elementary school. I will hug the children I tutor bi-weekly in the library and ask them about Christmas. I will answer their questions and share their excitement about Junie B. Jones, Corduroy, and the Hungry Caterpillar. I will feel that same spine-tingling chill I felt in a Minnesota movie theater as the shots of a Batman movie rang out from giant speakers. I cringed and imagined the bullets lodged in bodies and plush seat cushions the day before. That day dozens were gunned down in their cinema seats.

A movie theater in Aurora. Kindergarten classrooms in Newtown. The hallways of Columbine. Stairwells at Virginia Tech. Goosebumps are raised with each of these names. Each public space was once associated with safety, hope, and escape. Movie theater escape from the violence and weight of our modern world. The safety of the public school. The hope of the college graduate.

The victims were our children, mentors, and friends. In each of them we see someone we’ve loved. We can relate.These aren’t the drive-by shootings in “bad” neighborhoods or the undercover prostitution rings. This is the loss of those voted most likely to “succeed.” The loved children of middle-upper class homes with two cars in the driveway. The blossoming entrepreneurs dedicating an evening to the fun of a movie release. The almost-high school graduates with the world at their feet, and the college students encased in a 4-year bubble getting ready to “achieve.” We see these faces, and we see futures torn away. Worlds erased with one flick of a triggered finger.  “It could have been me,” we think.

Is this the wake up call our country needs? Last night our president wiped away tears with a shaking index finger. He said that this tragedy would bring us together–calling for an action to prevent another indescribable tragedy. I hope that something comes of Obama’s emotional speech. That Newtown does not fade away to the paragraphs of history books and googled archives.

I am left wondering: How will we protect our children–letting them live their lives without metal detectors and fear?

Echoing the many voices I’ve read in these past 24 hours, I agree that we need stricter gun control. We need to hold each other close and appreciate the moments of our fleeting lives. However, beyond these first emotional reactions, I think  too about how Sandy Hook’s community might remind us of the injustices that exist in classrooms across this country. These day-to-day tragedies of skewed opportunity are not the same as a senseless slaughter in a storybook town, but they too result in “lost” children.

My mind wanders to these kids. The ones whose ages match the victims, but whose life experiences do not. The children who do not attend  schools like Sandy Hook–who have never benefited from the passion of guidance school counselors like yesterday’s slain psychologist. Who have never had a principal who knew every child’s name as Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung did.  These are the kids who would not have been in gym or music classes like the 4th graders in Newtown yesterday morning. For many of them, feeling “safe” is not the default setting of childhood. In many cases they are under-served by their communities, teachers, and schools. For these kids, the “opportunity gap”  takes its toll every day.

The children and families plagued by Sandy Hook’s shooting had their futures stolen in a matter of minutes. The low-income and minority students in struggling schools who face the opportunity gaps in our education system have their futures stolen over the course of several years.

After the New Year passes and school in Newtown resumes, 20 desks will be empty. The students who once scribbled away enthusiastically on papers laid across those surfaces will be remembered by a community and by a country. They will be recognized as lost beacons of light and life. But what if they were also beacons of hope?


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