Dealing with Horrific Tragedy

imagesFriday morning found me driving to a restaurant in a nearby town to meet with other retired teachers from the middle school I retired from last year. It would be my first retirement breakfast ~ invited to many, it was the first that I felt ready to attend. I could drive myself, and did. I would enjoy eating with past friends, and hearing updates  on their grandchildren and spouses and more. I would no longer worry about others’ reactions to my meatless menu, and am finally comfortable eating in public despite tremors and dropping food off a fork or spoon.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I found only one other retiree … she, too, had not attended any before this one, and had decided that this day would be the one that she could take time from her substitute teaching schedule to come to breakfast. I found her outside the restaurant, on her cell phone. She had called the organizer, who apologized to her that the breakfast group had cancelled as few could make it with the holiday activity ahead. She and I were not called as we were not regular attendees. So we went into the restaurant and had an enjoyable, one on one breakfast together. About an hour later, we left.

As I was driving through the town where I had taught, I debated whether I could stop at my former schools. I bypassed the elementary school where I’d taught for the first seventeen years of my career, as I was fairly certain that my entering would be questioned, being so many years out of that loop. Few if any I’d taught with would be there. I passed by the end of the road with many memories of my elementary years. I decided that I would go to see my friends at the middle school where I spent the final thirteen years, leaving only a year ago, and certain of being welcomed in. I would bring them a smile and greet them with Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel, Buon Natale. I could greet them in sign language, too, waving my hands to say Happy, and stroking an imaginary beard to say Christmas. I could also wish them a happy seventh night of Hanukkah. A season of celebrations to enjoy with these very special people was just the right way to finish this morning of strength and happiness.

The first group I saw was the ‘foreign language’ staff who were between classes, getting ready to meet with each other in their once a day planning period. I took the opportunity to greet each of them in their class language, and asked the Latin/French teacher what greeting would be appropriate in Latin. She offered ‘io Saturnalia’, reminding me that the Romans had many gods, and honored the planet of Saturn during this season. So I added that to my holiday repertoire, and bid them all adieu, au revoir, adios, with a smile and some hugs.

I then went to see the sixth grade team, and found them working hard. I only stayed at the doorway a few minutes, smiled at the students and received smiles in return.  My next stop was to see a young teacher expecting her first child and leading a room full of students through a problem-solving activity. While the kids worked in their small groups together, she and I spoke for a few minutes, and I reassured her that the forgetfulness and other distractions she was experiencing were part of her pregnancy, and that all of her organizational strength and memory skills would return in time as her hormones leveled out. It is the same message I shared with students (well, almost the same) when I taught seventh grade … I called that the cocoon year, when hormones ruled and memory lapsed, and reassured them that their mental faculties would return in eighth grade and they would finish in this middle school building and emerge as beautiful, capable butterflies.

I went then to see my special education partner, who was in his smaller space with only a pair of students working their way collaboratively through a modified assessment for an academic class. We hugged and I wished him and his students all of the above greetings. He looked sad when I left, and I smiled and said I’d be back soon. We couldn’t really talk because the students’ test had to be finished before the bell would ring.

Before driving home, I used my cell phone in the parking lot to call Rick and let him know that I was on my way, and where I’d been.   As I drove home, I listened to the station that plays Christmas music all day. My world was a happy, secure place – I had accepted my retirement, and knew that though I’d left my classroom and given up my position, I still had friends whom I could visit and enjoy exchanged smiles, hugs, and bolstering strength

When I got home, Rick and I went together to ask a man in town to help our fire company by playing Santa for a few hours on Saturday, visiting families at their requests, arriving on a fire truck with presents in his bag.  He wasn’t at home, so we left him a note and went home to have lunch.

I’d brought half my breakfast home in a take out box, and Rick warmed up the omelet for me. We sat down to eat it and watch the noon news together.

The news from Connecticut … the school shooting … the horror … the reminders of other shootings … the sad faces in the film footage … the speculation … we watched for a while, and then we turned it off.

The warmth and happiness and strength of the morning’s interactions, the memories of the smiles and the hugs and the students’ and their teachers … everyone of them gave something to me. They gave me a renewed dose of optimism, a sense that things could be what they were meant to be. I knew that the teachers and students I had just left would witness growth this year. I felt the pain of sadness for those who died in Connecticut … those who would never finish this school day … who would not go home to their families  in a few  hours.

I wondered then if my partners had known of this tragedy but couldn’t speak of it with me in the brief hour I’d spent in the building. I hadn’t seen our principal, who no doubt was in a meeting discussing the Connecticut story and planning effective follow up activities that would help the students and teachers feel safe and secure in their classrooms next week. I wondered whether the students I’d just left would learn of the tragedy before leaving for home, or whether they would, as I had, learn about it at home, or on the bus home, or in the schoolyard as they waited for the bus to come for them. They all have cell phones. They are so connected with the world at large, as many of their cell phones connect to the internet. Where and when they would learn of it seemed very important to me, as first impressions would help shape their processing of the news.

Friday came to a slow, quiet end. I had left a note for a potential Santa. I had shared a breakfast with a colleague from the past. I had, on impulse, passed by one school that was in my distant past, and stopped in to share holiday greetings with the school I had just left last year. I had heard the tragic news while at home, with Rick, which is the best place for me to hear such news.

A day of friendship, of memories, of catching up, of planning for new life ahead, of sharing smiles and hugs and greetings for all… and a day of painful endings for so many in Connecticut. I did not cry. I am stronger. I want to believe that I helped others, unknowingly, face this tragedy with strength.

This morning, Saturday morning, the horror recedes slightly. The empathy for the teachers and parents, and the school’s surviving students and staff, is stronger. Rick and I went to the library where we are maintaining the Friends’ book sale area, and we boxed and relocated some books, and displayed others. Job done, we went to the fire station to make sure that our Santa to be had been added to the volunteer list. While we were there, Rick noticed that the flag hadn’t been lowered to half-mast, and so he took care of that. We headed back to the library to see whether that flag was at half-mast. Finding it flying high in the breeze, Rick lowered it to half-mast. It is to stay like that through Tuesday. We are all in mourning for Newtown, Connecticut.

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  1. Some times, it’s hard to remember the rest of life when some thing as graphic as horifying as the school shooting happens. This was the first bit of news I have ever just had to turn off because it made me feel physically ill. I kept thinking of all the families getting ready for Christmas who now have all the trapping of a holiday season but are missing a primary cellibrant. I think if it happened to my family, I would want to burn the tree and anything under it straight to the ground…In a way I almost want to burn that incident from my mind, but it seems disrespectful to think such thoughts. These kids and their family deserve our sadness, not the cold shoulder of a forgetful memory. The question is what can/should we do to prevent it from happening again, as it has 31 times since Columbine.

    • Your anger is your expression of grief, Geof, and I’m sure echoes that of many American husbands, dads, and sons. Not to say that women don’t grieve, but perhaps not in as visible a way. Or perhaps the tears are shed are their visibility, and relieves some of the anger within. I am quietly angry, but quietly resigned to the differences of opinion regarding gun control (our state has already banned assault rifles … others have yet to catch up to that;) but I am more concerned with the callous assumption that because the shooter had a mental illness it was a foregone conclusion that a shooting would happen. That physical illness you felt in your gut is what I felt, too, as I thought of the many parents and children who walk that difficult journey together. And I posted on Facebook: if a mass murderer drank bottled water regularly, does that indict all those who drink bottled water as potential mass murderers?

      My other irritation is with newscasters who imply that the funeral services will bring closure to these families … Not.

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