It Happened To Me Contest Entry: I Went To Sandy Hook Elementary School

The name of my sleepy little hometown is now a synonym for impossible, unimaginable massacre.

Feb 27, 2013 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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It’s Friday morning and I’m at work clicking through the J.Crew Factory website when a G-chat from my boyfriend pops up: “What’s this about a school shooting in Newtown?”

I google “Newtown, CT.” There’s a thumbnail-sized picture of a chain of little kids being led through what I immediately identify as the parking lot of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  

“Jesus,” I g-chat back. “I hope nobody got hurt.”

Less than 12 hours later, the name of my sleepy little hometown is a synonym for impossible, unimaginable massacre.

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Newtown was the kind of quaint, quiet little town that teenagers are practically hard-wired to resent. We grew up comfortable and bored -- nothing much exciting happened, our parents paid attention to us, and there was always a dearth of good places to discreetly smoke pot.

As a bitter, wise-ass teenager, I hated Newtown: I smugly thought of it as a kind of Stepford, a place where people hid their problems behind two-car garages and annual family vacations. I wished I could have come from some place more exciting, some place more authentic. Some place less suburban.

My senior year of high school, I applied exclusively to colleges in New York City and Boston, and waited to escape to the “real” world. Then in December, my mom died suddenly. I left Newtown for New York that August in a seething, blinding rage. I hated god, I hated myself, and I especially hated Newtown. 

Navigating a relationship with a hometown after we leave it is kind of like navigating a relationship with our parents after we grow up. It’s tough and sometimes painful. It’s shot through with nostalgia. It involves a lot of managing expectations.

For years, going back to Newtown ached like a sore tooth. When I took the Metro North train back to New York after Thanksgiving and Christmas, I sat facing backward, watching us blow past Westchester and White Plains, taking deep breaths to slow the nervous throbbing in my stomach. 

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It’s several years and many, many hours of therapy later. I’m living in Washington, DC, and hearing the name of my hometown is finally making me feel something other than vague anxiety. Then my boyfriend’s G-chat pops up.

“Newtown” is trending on Twitter. My Facebook feed is suddenly clogged with people whose names I haven’t heard in years. The story grows like a stain: two, ten, 20 fatalities. Dozens of dead children are lying in the building where I learned how to read. 

That night, I’m in the bathroom washing my face and listening to the drone of MSNBC from the living room. Every time Chris Matthews says “Newtown” or “Sandy Hook School,” I flinch. Those aren’t words that I’m supposed to hear on national television. There’s a sting of guilt, too – no one I know personally has died here, so what right do I have to feel so crappy about it? This isn’t my personal tragedy. 

Whether we leave our hometowns forever or stay in them indefinitely, there’s always something weird and magic about the place where you grow up. Your hometown humbles you. Sometimes it makes your heart swell, and sometimes it just makes you hurt. It represents something that’s simultaneously warm and embarrassing, like wetting the bed. 

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The day after the Newtown massacre, I’m due in New York for a co-worker’s wedding. I sleep in tiny slices, and I’m bleary-eyed on the Megabus. That night, I drink and eat cake and try my best to do an impression of a normal human girl whose hometown hasn’t just been pillaged.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds are jammed full of people reminding each other to pray, pray, pray, pray. I haven’t prayed in over a decade, but that night I figure I might as well give it a try. I don’t really know how to talk to god, since I don’t know what I think god is, but I close my eyes and try to… what? Channel positivity? Embolden the bereaved? Mostly I just try to imagine everything being very quiet. The next day I decide to go to Newtown. 

When I get there, the town is wet and grey and clogged with news vans. My sister, home from college for the holidays, picks me up at the train station. She’s wearing a sweater I’ve never seen before. I suddenly feel overwhelmingly guilty — guilty for going to that wedding and drinking champagne instead of coming home to grieve, guilty for leaving Newtown in the first place, guilty for every time I didn’t tell someone where I’m from because I knew they’d never heard of it.

I am a terrible daughter to a place that has been ravaged and torn apart. Now I’m back, standing in the wreckage, trying to piece together a whole new way to understand a place I was still very much trying to figure out.

Here is what I know: I know that when I reach back as far as I can to try to find the most innocent, original part of myself, what I touch is Sandy Hook Elementary School. I know that it was a sacred piece of my insides, and I know that it will never be the same again. I know that when I think of that school building, empty now and a crime scene indefinitely, I mourn for the loss of such a space. Something inside of me feels disrupted.

In early January, I’m sitting on the couch going through weeks of neglected Google Reader. Mental health stigma, Bushmaster, the disproportionate attention given to victimized white children, gun buyback programs, schools full of children killed by drone strikes, Newtown, Newtown, Newtown.

I try to think one solitary intelligent thing -- about the ways we understand mental illness, about the ways we understand masculinity, about the ways we understand violence. But I feel too close for comfort, like something sinister is breathing down the back of my neck. I close the laptop. “I wish the name of my hometown wasn’t a word that means ‘child-massacre,’” I say to my boyfriend. 

“It won’t be forever,” he assures me. And suddenly I realize that the only thing more terrifying to me than watching Anderson Cooper report live from in front of my high school is the idea that one day he won’t anymore, that we are going to forget Newtown, forget Sandy Hook. What if this isn’t the watershed moment we all hope it is? What if all of this is for nothing? 

If only everyone could be so lucky as to have a place like Sandy Hook School inside of them. I mourn, I mourn, I mourn.