A Little Perspective

I wrote this for an upcoming edition of our Jefferson County Education Association newsletter:

I’m in a contemplative mood as I write this.  The weather is gearing up for snow, and my colleague and I have just finalized our plans to fly to Newtown, Connecticut, where we will try to give the teachers from Sandy Hook Elementary a bit of an idea of what it will be like, now that they have joined the club we at Columbine joined 14 years ago.  It’s an association no one enters by choice; they get dragged in at gunpoint.

As horrible as it is to be in the circle of schools that has experienced a shooting, there are blessings in it, too.  I know, unequivocally, what the worst day of my life was, and no day since has touched it, though some, like the death of my father, come close.  Put into that perspective, fender-benders and student meltdowns are nothing.  Nasty parent emails are nothing.  The line at the grocery store is nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

A fourth grade teacher at Sandy Hook has written to us of her good friend, Vicki Soto, one of several heroes on December 14, who gave her very life for the safety of her students, and this reminds me of how important teachers’ bonds are to our students and to each other.  They are bonds no one else can understand, bonds we, ourselves, are often unaware of.

I know what it is like to have long-standing animosity with a colleague dissolve in gladness to see each other alive.  I have learned how coworkers can hold each other up through the hardest of times, and when I feel cranky or short-tempered with one, I think of what I know he or she would do for me in a crisis—a real crisis, not a snippy little exchange over shared materials—and I get a sense of perspective. It was hard to do this before the shootings, hard to imagine what my most difficult colleague would be like if one day all hell broke loose.  It’s easy for me now. Those who can learn this lesson without the terrible price are well ahead of the curve.

This is part of the hopeful message my colleague and I will take to our friends in Connecticut: They have a long, hard, rocky road to travel, but they will forge bonds that last, rising above politics, personal choices, and the passage of time.

I am Facebook friends with many former students, a lot of them from the year of the shootings and the hard, hard years after.  They are in their late twenties and early thirties now, and we often disagree passionately over things like the size and role of government and the amount of gun regulation required in this Frightened New World.  But our conversations don’t ever devolve into the nasty exchanges that sometimes happen online.  In the end, not one of us can dehumanize the people we suffered with so deeply, the people with whom we laughed in our darkest hours.  My former students will never forget the feel of my arms around them as they wept over coffins, and I will always remember the days they spoke softly and worked hard without prompting because they could tell I was struggling.

In the wake of tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, people talk about how deeply they are affected, and of course they are, but sometimes I think the world would be better if we all suffered to the same degree over those.  It’s not because “misery loves company.”  It’s because suffering is universal.  Because the poet Countee Cullen was right:

Joy may be shy, unique,

Friendly to a few,

Sorrow never scorned to speak

To any who

Were false or true.

Because if we all shared in some suffering equally we could never dehumanize anyone; we would all know that getting cut off in traffic is nothing, that when the chips are down, our bonds will trump our differences.

This is what I will take with me to Sandy Hook Elementary when I visit with my colleagues.  Then I thought, what the heck, I’d offer it to you, too.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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5 Responses to A Little Perspective

  1. Irene says:

    Go with God, Paula, and do what you must. They need you now.

  2. Dennis LaPak says:

    Hi Paula – a friend of mine shared your January 31 post on FB. I happen to live in Newtown and really, just wanted to say thanks to you and your colleagues. I’m sure the Sandy Hook teachers will also be very appreciative.

    Your points are well taken. What used to seem “important” or “aggravating” really isn’t as much anymore. Not to say things don’t matter, they do, but they’re just not as important in the scheme of life, especially after experiencing the events that occurred in our communities.

    My wife and I almost lost a son due to a senseless act of violence a few years back. We were lucky God was not ready for him yet. Since that fateful day I have taken a different approach to my daily life, very similar to what you’ve written about.

    During my son’s month-long hospital stay was when I saw, first-hand, what a wonderful community Newtown is. Friends, neighbors, strangers came from everywhere to help us in any way they could. To this day we are grateful. I bring this up because this is what is now happening everywhere in town – but on a much larger scale. It seems everybody is trying to help in any way they can. We only wish we could do more.

    And then there is the love and support that is coming from all over the country and world. Every time I think about this I get teary-eyed. Thank you.

    I should mention that my wife is a pre-school teacher here in town. She lost four of her former students in the shooting. Needless to say it’s been a bit tough. While at the wake of one of those students, she received the ultimate compliment from his parents – they told her that she had the biggest impact on their son because of the two years she taught him. She made them realize that their son was who he was and they are very grateful to her for that. I can still picture the look on her face while hearing this.

    So Paula, THANK YOU. You and teachers everywhere have a very big part in our children’s lives and it is noticed.

    Here’s to hoping that the senseless violence our wonderful communities have experienced does not spread its ugly wings.

    I wish you and your colleagues a safe trip to Newtown.

    Dennis LaPak
    Newtown, CT

    • admin says:

      Thank you, Dennis. Our interactions with the people from your town have been so warm and generous. I’m looking forward to being there.

      There are so many special times in child’s life when we can have different kinds of impacts on their development. Those formative years are so important, and it sounds like your wife is doing terrific things for kids. I’m so sorry for the loss of the students she taught and for the hardships your own family has endured. May you be upheld by strong community and find peace together.

  3. Paula, thank you.

    I’d also like to add a little perspective of my own, if I may. One of the things I always encounter when talking with just about anyone regarding what happened to my family at CHS and afterward is their expressions of sorrow and/or sympathy. Without fail, it seems everyone feels a need of sorts to let me know how they can’t begin to understand what we’ve been through. Truth is, neither can we. If we could understand it, comprehend it, wrap our heads around it, we would be no better than those who perpetrated it.

    What I’ve started telling most is thanks for your concerns, but everyone experiences trauma at some time or another in their lives. Whether we choose to base those traumas on degrees of magnitude or not isn’t really necessary. To each and every one of us at the time we experience our trauma, it is very serious. And, based on that, the reality is (at least from my perspective) no one person’s trauma is any more or any less than anyone else’s.

    I then go on to ask those who might be willing to join us in our efforts to help others. That’s one of the most important reasons I find your website and your Facebook page to be so wonderful. I’ve said it to you before, and I’ll say it again, if there is anything we can do to help, to lend a voice, or something else, please let us know. We are also there for others.

  4. admin says:

    Your perspective is much appreciated, Ted. The most important thing we can do is to remember to love and care for each other every day.

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