Our hearts are broken. Since the shooting that recently took place in Newtown, Connecticut, we have been hurting. The metaphor "my heart is broken" does not convey fully what I feel.
I have a gregarious seven-year-old nephew, Logan. Logan is a delight, as are most seven-year-olds. He likes Spiderman, playing tag, drawing, and playing with his younger brothers. Logan brightens my world. I have no doubt that the parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, and friends who knew the students killed in Newtown felt the same way about their own six- and seven-year-olds.
My feeling of loss, of sadness, of anger, and of rage signify more than just my heart being broken, they are a sign to me that I feel something is deeply amiss in our society. In a society where children should look forward to going to school, we are currently hearing people express the idea that we should have an armed guard in every school. And for what? To protect our children? As if armed guards could withstand future school shootings. Instead of one shooter we could then see the potential for multiple shooters entering a school simultaneously.
School is a place of learning -- of biology, chemistry, literature, art, gym class, and social cues. In school we grow into ourselves and we test out the person we want to be. Some of us become dorks, geeks, jocks, homecoming royalty, volunteers, thespians, and musicians. Many of us are all of these at the same time. In school we read stories, stories about good versus bad, stories about rags to riches, and stories about love and loss. In school we learn where we fit into these stories and where these stories fit into our lives.
For many, school is more than just about finding playmates who have similar interests. Many students look to school as a reprieve from problems at home, from anxieties beyond their control, and view it as an opportunity to be on their own, learning and growing, to become better people.
School is also a place where students struggle.
In school we're bullied; we're teased for being different. Being nice, or befriending someone who is labeled "weird," may mean we are mocked. Being kind isn't always cool in school. In America, many students fear their classmates, and maybe their larger fear is of being misunderstood. In school we learn what makes you cool and what makes you a dork. We learn the social cues that make us popular and how to dress the part to fit in -- or not.
But our time in school does not necessarily start on this path. In kindergarten and first grade we start learning how to count; we can recite our ABCs; we learn new games on the playground; we may even start to tackle reading. In our early years we are excited at our new friendships and what we're learning because, as we know, school is fun.
But for students in Newtown, Connecticut, that fun has ended. That Friday I felt a visceral reaction of loss, anger, and a willingness to want to do something. Broken hearts are a fine reaction for the short-term, but in the longer term we must move toward action and change. The school in Newtown was safe, it was filled with staff and personnel who were committed not only to the education of those children, but to their safety as well. Teachers and staff died protecting them. Would a rifle or a pistol in the school have made a difference?
What does make a difference in the lives of students is compassion; caring teachers affect students deeply. Newtown can be viewed not only as a place of great tragedy, but of great love and resilience. In their final moments, many teachers held their students, gathered them to tell them stories -- even though they knew it was not going to be all right -- and gave them the great lesson that love comforts us when we are scared.
Over and over while reading the stories that eventually became known of the shooting in Newtown, one image has stuck hard in my mind's eye, the image of the school principal, Dawn Hochsprung, tackling the shooter to try to save her students. When I think about that act I still cry. Many of us will not be put in a place where we will have to react before thinking; react in such a way to try to save others. Dawn Hochsprung, along with her staff, reacted in the hopes that their children would be saved.
This holiday season, while many of us will enjoy the company of friends and family, the people affected in Newtown will set one less place at the dinner table. Their conversations will be a little harder, their throats a little drier, and the silence more deafening. Their loss is our loss, too, because we now know that going to school does not only mean unbridled fun, it can also be risky.
In her poem, "Lead," Mary Oliver tells of the loons who have come to the harbor and slowly died, one by one. I quote a portion of the poem:
Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing[...]
The next morning
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
It is my hope that our hearts, after being broken, never close again; that we live more fully, more deeply, and more compassionately. It is my hope that you let your love be known, that we commit to the hard work ahead of us, and that we work together to bring the change that is so desperately needed from this immense tragedy. It is easy to feel helpless, to not want to have hard and difficult conversations, and to not want to think about what the future of education after Newtown might look like -- but not having these conversations would be a loss, it would be a missed opportunity. As a civil society it is our right and our duty to affect change and to be a voice into what that change should look like and how it is to be implement, now is just such a time for that change. The great American philosopher John Dewey said that, "Education is not preparation for life: Education is life itself." It is time to start more intentionally teaching our students to love wholly, live fully, and to commit deeply to each other. And as adults it is our time to set the example. We must not let our hearts close.