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Day Three: Recovering

December 16, 2012

Every blurb I read about Newtown (I’m finished reading about the shooter), creates a more vivid montage – one part Thornton Wilder, one part Norman Rockwell, and one part Garrison Keillor. This is a town where people have high hopes for their children – a town where people are connected to their nation but full of pride for their community.

I grew up in a town like that, and I live in one now. Many – I hope most – of us feel that way about the place we call home. As I listened to President Obama speak tonight in Newtown, I set aside the other blog post I’ve been writing off and on all day. It’s just not my priority. I’m still fixated on what it means to have your family, your school, your community, and your entire worldview shattered.

Our Town focuses on the stages of life, with a mixture of nostalgia and irony. As the characters rush to reach the mundane, they walk right past the significant. The children killed at school Friday don’t have a chance to make it to Act II even.

Perhaps the most famous work of Rockwell’s portfolio is the Four Freedoms. One of these is the Freedom from Fear. This will be the hardest thing for people to gain back after Friday. It’s not so much that we keep thinking if it can happen there it can happen anywhere. Of course it can. And it has. Repeatedly.

We all believe – as do the residents of Lake Woebegone – that our hometown is a land “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This is, in part, why we also believe through the despair that we can live beyond such a tragedy and repair the lives that remain.

We weep and grieve collectively when children are murdered. We know it’s unnatural. We feel something similar to a lesser degree when a family member, friend, or colleague goes too early – say in their 40s. But we all understand, that statistically speaking, it’s just so much more unnatural for children to go.

I am – sometimes to a fault – always interested in data. If someone dying at age 45 is a standard deviation off from the normal distribution, then someone dying at 16 is at least two away. Someone dying at six is at least three.

It’s the magnitude of the loss that continues to bother me. Students taken way too soon. Three standard deviations or more too soon. And so many of them. And for no apparent reason. It doesn’t match what we know about our communities – whether we’re talking about the local level or the nation as a whole. This just doesn’t happen.

I’m still alarmed at my own reaction Friday; I was prepared to be numb at another school shooting in a high school. At least my brain has formed a schema for that – a cold, pragmatic schema. Suburban angst has been chronicled by bands such as Rush and Nirvanna. And it has been lived out far too many times.

We are a sometimes callous nation with a tremendous capacity for action and empathy when catastrophe strikes. It’s not enough to care about the children – or the communities – just when times are tough. We have to care all the time.

And yes, this is part of the reason I’m proud of the career path I’ve chosen. I know what it’s like to stare at a room full of 35 students and know there is no limit to what you would do for them. I know what it’s like to become ensconced in the community. I know what it’s like to grieve with students in times of tragedy and work with them as they collect food or help build homes for the needy.

Tomorrow, we still grieve. And many of us will do so publicly. Many of us – a thousand miles away from Newtown – will grieve with students asking questions that we still don’t know how to answer. And maybe the best thing we can say is, I love you, and I’d do anything I could to keep you safe.

Then the day after tomorrow, we can work to keep every student free from fear. We can work to make sure they’re all still progressing towards above average. And we can reclaim our towns.

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