Reflections on Newtown: Beautiful Town

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As children we would visit a friend’s father who lived a few miles north of Newtown. The river wound through leafy woods, and there was a dirt road covered with garnets from an old mine and at sunset they would glimmer like tiny, dusty red stars fallen to earth. Newtown was peaceful and, to a girl from gritty, industrial New Britain, the stately white houses and gem-strewn lanes symbolized the fairy-tale of money and bucolic beauty and gave a sense of order and safety.

Did the children of Newtown feel safer than others? The words “school shootings” have long-since entered our country’s vocabulary, and Sandy Hook Elementary had safety plans, lockdown drills, and a security system in place. Still, no one could have expected the events of December 14, 2012.

As if teaching weren’t enough, these and all school personnel have to be prepared for the worst—in this case a former student dressed in body armor shooting out the front window, walking in, gunning down twenty children and six adults. The principal and school psychologist died lunging at the gunman to protect their students. 

The teachers barricaded their classrooms, put paper over door windows, told the children to be quiet and hid them in closets or back corners of the room.  One teacher whispered a story, another held a crying child on her lap. A first grade teacher told her kids she loved them because she thought they were all going to die, and she wanted words of love and reassurance to be the last thing they heard. 

My mother taught English at Slade Middle School in New Britain and during the 1970’s schools didn’t have metal detectors beyond standard fire drills, or safety plans. One day a student pulled a loaded gun in her classroom.  She talked him out of shooting anyone and nothing “happened”—no one was hurt.  But until she died years later the trauma of that moment never left her, and she would bring it up now and then, the Day the Boy Brought the Gun to School.

The minute I heard about Newtown, I wanted to talk to my mother, but since she is no longer here, I called Laurette Laramie, my favorite high school teacher.

We spoke about Rachel D’Avino, one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rachel attended St. Joseph University in West Hartford, as had my mother and Laurette.  She was a doctoral student in SJU’s Behavioral Analysis Program, and a one-to-one instructor for a child with special needs at Sandy Hook. Just a few days before her murder, her boyfriend asked her parents’ permission to propose on Christmas Eve.

Connecticut is small and this sorrow feels personal. Garnets pave the country roads, true love is true love, children are brave, teachers amaze me, and as of 12/14/12 the words “Newtown” and “massacre” are forever linked.

Luanne Rice is the author of thirty novels that often talk about families, including the latest “Little Night.” She is from New Britain, Connecticut, and is now based in New York City and Southern California.

She is one of five writers commissioned by WNYC to write essays on the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.