Columbine. Ferguson. Newtown. Isla Vista. These are all places that have become synonymous with a tragic event. They are names of towns that now carry with them something more. They are names that no longer just signify a geographic location but an event, a cause, and a topic of debate. They are names that for 99% of the country are cause for a conversation, and for the other 1% are cause for personal memories and personal conflict.
December 14, 2012 I transitioned my class of kindergartners to take their daily nap and was finally able to check my phone and e-mail for the first time all day. I was getting excited that we were one week away from being on Christmas vacation and was getting anxious for all of the plans I was going to have and shopping I needed to do. I opened up my phone and got excited when I saw text messages from all of my friends from high school. And then I saw text messages from my sister-in-law’s dad. And my sister-in-law. AND my mom. AND my dad. AND my friends from college. What the hell was going on?
I got a mixed up jumble of messages that ultimately all led me to understand that there was a shooting at my hometown elementary school. I immediately thought of all the times we practiced lockdowns in middle school, trying not to giggle about hiding under tables with the cute boy you never dared to talk to. It’s not funny now, but it was funny to me at the time when I was 12 years old. Practicing lockdown drills in a town with one middle school and high school where you couldn’t even blow your nose without someone knowing seemed absolutely ridiculous. What in the world could’ve possibly gone on at my elementary school? Of course, I got on Google and immediately started to type in “Sand…” but before I could even finish the words, Google’s most commonly searched results came up and “Sandy Hook Shooting” popped up. What the hell?
At that time, it was only early afternoon and the news stations were all giving a mixed number of reports what had happened. Three dead, none dead, many injured, many victims. Ultimately, we all know what happened in the end. Twenty-six were killed altogether; twenty young innocent students (barely older than the students I had just sent to take their nap) and six educators (just like myself and all the friends I work with). Now, two years away from the event, I still wouldn’t say it seems “normal” that it happened. It’s hard to be from somewhere that is no longer a somewhere, but a something. Newtown went from being my hometown and I place where I made my most formative memories and closest friends to now this nationwide known “event” synonymous with mass school shooting.
When you’re from a “something” and not a “somewhere,” anytime you meet someone new it becomes a scary interaction. There’s a normal series of events that happen when you meet someone new. You shake hands (or hug, if you’re a hugger), you find out what they do for a living, how they wound up in the place you’re mutually meeting, and then of course where they’re from. When you’re from a something, and not a somewhere, it now becomes this big giant pink hippo in the room. There’s nothing like having a casual drink in a bar and someone tells you they’re from a town where there was a major mass shooting. Talk about a buzz kill. People either address the issue head on and apologize, they make a face of shock and then try and desperately think of something else to say, or, which I now find the scariest, is it doesn’t even seem to register that they’re supposed to have a reaction.
On more than one occasion I’ve been introduced as “This is Sarah. She’s from that town where they had that terrible school shooting” (or some more or less tactful variation of that). I don’t mind so much that it’s something that sticks in people’s head about me – I’m proud to be from Newtown. But I want to put an asterisk next to “that town” which would require everyone who talks about it and meets me to come see it. My town is so much more than the firehouse where Anderson Cooper stood reporting on that Friday (where every year the firemen sell Christmas trees and wreaths). My town is so much more than the park where major political figures gave press conferences after the shooting (where my friends and I have played flag football, swam as little kids, and watched infinite lacrosse, softball and baseball games).
My town is more than the high school auditorium stage where Barack Obama cried in the middle of the most memorable speech I’ve ever heard him make (the stage where I was inducted into the National Honor Society, my friends had dance recitals, and I gave my first concert as a member of the Sandy Hook Elementary school band). I will proudly walk around with a stamp on my head that says “I’m from the town where there was the second worst school shooting in America’s history” as long as you’re willing to listen to why it’s so much more than that. And as long as you’re willing to remember what happened there and never forget. As long as you remember that when I say I’m from Newtown, Connecticut – you know why it sounds familiar.
Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve given anything in the world to have not been from a something. I would love for no one to have any idea where Newtown, CT is. I would love for the only people who see that high school stage to be those who have stood on it or sat in the audience. I would love for the only people who saw that park to be those who have played on the fields or cheered from the wooden fences. I would love for the only people who know that firehouse to be those who have bought the Christmas trees and wreaths (or done their fire safety demonstration in elementary school). But now, almost two years out from the event, it scares me more that I meet people frequently who have no reaction when I say I’m from Newtown, Connecticut. “Oh, Connecticut seems like a great state!” “Did you also go to college there?” “UCONN basketball is great,” “I have a friend from Connecticut.” Recently I’ve found myself wanting to scream, “Do you know WHY that name sounds familiar? Do you know WHAT happened there?”
The fact of the matter is I can’t ever forget and I’m afraid everyone else will. I walk into my classroom every day and still wonder what I would do if this ever happened to us (trust that I have a plan, but I frequently wonder what would happen in the moment). Every day I lock the door on my way out of the room and say a prayer to protect it and those who walk in it. I don’t expect the rest of the world to think about these things ever or as often as I do, and I don’t want anyone to ever have to. But I do expect that the rest of the world remembers what happened in my town and know it’s okay to acknowledge when people are from a “something” and not a “somewhere.” We know. We know when we say “Newtown” you think “shooting.” We know when we say “Ferguson” you think “shooting.” We know when we say “Columbine” you think “shooting.” We’re not at all happy it happened, but we’re glad you know that it did happen (because we’re old enough now to know that ignorance is far from bliss). But there’s some things we want you to know about our “somethings,” so just listen. Please. And don’t ever forget.