New Year’s Letter from Connecticut

by heatherwhaley

On the Monday after our country, and the world, were still reeling from the horrific events in Newtown, I walked my daughter to the end of the driveway, hugged her too hard, and put her on the school bus.  The driver and I exchanged a solemn nod.  After the bus pulled away I cried deeply but silently in the driveway before going inside to get my son ready for middle school.  It was an act of faith on my part, and courage on hers to get on that bus.

The previous Friday I arrived very early to pick her up from school.  I wasn’t the only one.  More than one parent ran to the school the moment they heard of the attack.  Sandy Hook Elementary is about ten miles from my daughter’s school, and it was a struggle to wait until dismissal.  I watched as one by one the kids came into the gym, where they meet their parents.  They rushed, backpacks heavy, artwork in hand, to their waiting parents who each in turn picked up their child and held them closely.  It was overwhelmingly sad, knowing that a few miles down the road there were parents who would never again feel that mundane joy.  We were informed that the kids didn’t know what had happened.  I knew that would not be the case with my son, because so many middle schoolers have cell phones and iPads.  Sure enough he got off the bus informing me that someone had shot a whole bunch of people at a school in Newtown and now there were two gunmen on the loose.

I told him that wasn’t true.  That a man had gone to a school and a lot of people were hurt, but that he was dead and nobody ever had to worry about him again, and please don’t tell your sister because she doesn’t know.  He understood.  But it was Friday, and she’s allowed to play on the computer on Fridays. I didn’t remember in time that our home screen is CNN.com.  She would have seen the coverage on her way to Club Penguin.  When I asked about it, she said she hadn’t seen anything.  But later, as my son was working on a project to organize a field trip for the fifth grade, she said, “You could go to Newtown.  That would be depressing.”  My heart sank.

That weekend was rough.  My daughter, who is normally very independent, didn’t leave my side, showering me with kisses and hugs.  She slept in her brother’s room all weekend.   Then came Monday.

I was glad to be going to a meeting at the elementary school, because I didn’t want to be far from my children.  The meeting was at 9:30 in the cafeteria, and we were to discuss the best way to talk about the tragedy with our kids.  My husband and I had just arrived, our nerves still frazzled, our eyes still red from crying, when an alarm came over the P.A. system and the principal’s voice, tight with fear, said, “We are in lockdown. This is not a drill.”  It was as if my entire body had become hollow.  A strong breeze could have turned me to dust.  A door opened and the custodian said, “This way.”

We were ushered into the computer room, the lights were turned off, windows covered, we were told to sit on the floor and be absolutely quiet.  Parents started crying.  I might have been first.  I thought of my daughter.  She’s eight years old.  Her class was having a China Festival and she was so excited to wear the Chinese dress we ordered for her online.  She had picked out the outfit a week before, and it was all she talked about for days.  I pictured her hiding in the closet of her classroom in her Chinese dress.  It was lavender.  Of course I pictured those kids in Newtown hiding in their schoolroom closets.  I couldn’t breathe, and when I tried, the tears just came.

We are new to the school and I didn’t know any of the other parents I was with, but they grabbed my arm in the dark and told me it was going to be okay.  I felt overwhelming guilt that I had moved my children to this place, assuring them that it would be a better life, that it was a better place to be a kid.  In New York City they had never gone into “lockdown.”  I felt I had lied to them.  Across the room my husband was talking to another father whose tears ran freely down his face.  I wanted to know what was going on.  I found the teacher in the dark.  She said they had been told that morning there would definitely not be a drill of any kind that week.  Then I stared to listen to what was happening in the halls.  It was eerily quiet.  I was expecting, really honestly waiting, to hear gunfire.  I knew it was coming.  I just wanted to know what part of the building it was going to be in, and if I could run to get my daughter.  But it didn’t come.

A while later we learned that a suspicious man had been spotted carrying what looked to be a rifle at a nearby train station.  In reality it was a man with an umbrella.  It was raining.  Because of that man, schools in at least five districts had gone on lockdown on the one day when that was the second worst thing that could happen.  It brought the horror of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary right into those schools.

Later I asked my daughter if she had been scared.  I told her that I was scared, because I had never been in a lockdown before.  She said that she was but she didn’t tell anyone.  “When we were hiding Alice said, ‘I keep looking at the crack of light under the door and thinking someone is going to put a gun under there,’ and I was thinking the same thing.”  Across town my son had been pushed into a different closet.  He said that he was “a bit” frightened because it went on for so long that he thought maybe “something bad was happening.”  When you think about it, hiding from someone who has broken in and is looking to kill you is just about the scariest thing you can go through.  Our children do that as routine.  It is part of their reality to know that some people are going to try to shoot them in the places they feel the most safe.

I don’t think we will ever be able to imagine the toll this massacre has taken on my neighbors in Newtown, and our country as a whole.  I can only measure it against the toll on my own children.  About a month ago I ordered fire safety ladders for the upstairs bedrooms in my house.  When they arrived I showed my son how to use them and he said, “Is this only for fires, or for if there is… something bad happening in the house?” Something bad.  Those are the words he has chosen to describe the most frightening and awful thing possible.

Perhaps out of guilt, or the constant reminder of how lucky we are that we have our children, my husband and I went totally overboard on the Christmas presents.  They got a foosball table. We gave my son a cell phone.  I thought that if he’d had one when he was stuck in that closet I could have texted him to let him know it was just a precaution.  My daughter has been desperate to get her ears pierced, knowing full well that I’ve told her she wasn’t allowed until she was in middle school.  But on Christmas morning, she opened a big box and inside she found a pair of earrings.  We went the next day to get them pierced.  I was worried that every time I looked at her earrings I would remember the kids who died in that school, but what I remember is how fortunate I am to have her, and to treasure every moment I have with my children.  When my son asks me to play foosball, I say yes.  Every time.

I don’t know much about mental illness.  I don’t know about what drives a person to commit mass murder.  I do know that those people have one thing in common.  They have high-powered weapons.  The second amendment was written by men who never conceived of the weapons available today.  Their intention was to enable citizens to fight against an oppressive government.  With muskets.  As our weapons have evolved, so must our laws pertaining to them.  In spite of what the NRA claims, nobody needs a Bushmaster rifle to shoot a deer.  The only thing you hunt with an assault rifle is people, specifically a lot of people in a short amount of time.  There is a lot of talk about making it harder for people to buy guns, but that’s not going to work.  Connecticut, I am told, has fairly strict regulations, and in any case, the weapons used in Sandy Hook Elementary belonged to someone else.  We need to get rid of the guns.  Period.

Our children are hiding in closets at school.  That is too high a price to pay for someone’s supposed “right” to own whatever weapon they choose.  Where is the line drawn?  In the U.S. an average citizen can own a grenade launcher.  Why?  I can go into a nearby Walmart and buy an assault rifle designed for military use.  Why?  The NRA argues that anything can be a weapon – a fork can be a weapon.  But on the same day as the shooting in Sandy Hook, a man went on a stabbing spree at a school in China. The difference is nobody was killed.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what kind of people want to own assault rifles.  Perhaps they would be a good pool from which to begin mental health screenings.  I can’t imagine there are all that many of them.  Certainly there are more people in America who want assault rifles off the streets than want them in their homes, so why are they so hard to regulate?  There is only one answer.  Money.  The NRA has a lot of money, and is a powerful voice in Washington.  It’s time to scream louder than the NRA.

This New Year I resolve to do everything I possibly can to protect my children, to make this world a place where my children can feel safe.  I will not allow the rights of some gun nut to come before the basic rights of happiness and security for my children.  I will not stand down, or grow discouraged because an old man thinks I am just hysterical and will eventually get over my knee jerk reaction to a tragedy.  What Wayne La Pierre doesn’t realize is that nothing infuriates a woman more than a man being dismissive of her anger.  It is a coward who believes in America the Brave, but arms himself to the teeth.  I am braver than him.  I am stronger than him.  I am louder than him.

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