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.