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Anna Hodge Headshot

The Dreadful 'Where Are You From?'

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I avoid telling people where I am from. I dodge the question at parties. I name the county, the town next to mine, not the place I actually grew up.

And as a college student who is constantly meeting new people, the question is asked quite frequently, "Where are you from?"

My first instinct is to blurt it out: "Newtown, Connecticut." It is, after all, where I attended elementary through high school. It is my home, and it is the home of the other college students who had to return to the university setting following their winter break, marred by one of the deadliest school shootings in history, which happened to take place in our little corner of the universe.

And we all have faced the same question: "Where are you from?"

I didn't realize we all do our best to avoid it, though. In talking to my friends from home, I realized we all either lie or provide such a vague response that the person asking the question is reluctant to delve any deeper.

Even my brother, who did not seem as deeply impacted as I was by December 14, 2012, admitted to lying about his hometown to his college friends to avoid the questions.

And it isn't that we lack pride in our hometown. Since 12/14, in what should be one of the most casual conversation topics between two individuals who are just meeting, we are forced to break down an emotional boundary, often confronted with awkward questions and uncomfortable body language that is difficult to respond to. We have to get deeply personal much too quickly.

Six months after the tragedy, the wounds remain open and raw in our town. And telling strangers about that part of our identities can lead to one of several scenarios. Many become quiet and don't know how to react, what to say. Others ask questions, about the town, the community, but they don't really care about the answers. Then there are the few who don't even recognize my town's name. Sometimes, I am grateful for these individuals and their ignorance. It saves me from having to talk about an inexplicable event that shattered the world for all of those who grew up in Newtown.

"Did you know anyone?" That was often asked, and I would often answer: "It's the type of town where you sort of know everyone. If you didn't know someone personally, your best friend does." And this is true. Our neighbors, little brothers and sisters, kids we babysit and former teachers were in the school that day, or locked down in the high school, or frantically texting friends for information. No one could believe it was happening. Even today, six months later, the pain, shock and loss continue to reverberate throughout our town.

Right after the shooting, I was privileged with having the comfort of being surrounded by family and friends who felt the same thing. My brother came home from college the day of shooting. My eighteenth birthday was one week after. We were united in our grief, and while being together helped, we were ultimately a mess.

I returned to school several weeks later and felt a bit at sea. A news-writing course required me to constantly read current events -- many of them related to Newtown. While running on a treadmill at the gym, I looked up to see b-roll images being broadcast on CNN of Obama speaking in my high school's auditorium. It was surreal.

Perhaps the hardest part was the need to discuss the shooting when I returned to school in January, but having to be selective about whom I could talk to. That's the thing: there were sudden urges and waves that Newtown alums felt, where we needed to discuss the horror we came home to during winter break.

For the college kids grappling with the shooting miles from home, our only chance of surviving was turning to the relationships we had immediately beside us in our dorm rooms, dining halls and class rooms. We learned who would stick with us, even when we seemed so emotionally distraught. They are our best friends in college who gave us a family away from home, as we grappled with being apart from our community during a time of utter horror. In group conversations, they smiled on even when they knew we were lying about where we were from. Although they might never quite understand what we went through as a community, they stood by us.

The graduating class of Newtown High School will face the same reality of having to identify their hometown when they enter college in the fall. When that moment of truth comes, they should know they are not alone.

When their hometown is revealed, they will realize who is really worthwhile in their lives. If anything, this whole experience has helped me weed out the compassionate from the curious.
"Where are you from" has become a litmus test for friendships and relationships.

And in the end, that's not such a bad thing.