NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Gray, mournful skies follow me along I-84 into one of America’s beautiful historic towns, now known for the most unspeakable of tragedies.
As I wander dipping green hills and spot a deer family roaming a neighborhood where wood-framed homes sport wishing wells and flower-painted mailboxes on vast lawns, there’s news of yet another school shooting, this time in Seattle.
One dead, three injured when a madman with a shotgun sprays the campus of a private Christian school. It could’ve been worse, but he’s subdued by a student when he tries to reload.
The killing doesn’t lead the evening news or make the front page in most cities. No one is surprised by school shootings anymore. The geographical setting is all that changes.
Last month Santa Barbara, June 5 Seattle, and last week, it’s a 15-year-old carrying assault weapons in a guitar case and duffle bag into his Portland high school campus. He kills a 14-year-old student, injures a teacher, then kills himself during a gun battle with police.
Yet, the fresh violence doesn’t enlighten the path to sensible gun control.
How can this country, in the grip of rampant gun violence, forget what happened in this idyllic setting of everything the American Dream stands for — a peaceful, prosperous, close-knit village, Sandy Hook, where churches hold spaghetti dinners, children play in front yards with abandon, and main streets are dressed up with the Stars and Stripes?
How can everything stay the same after the tally of 20 children and six teachers and administrators gunned down by the high-powered weaponry of a madman — at an elementary school of all places?
Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, Allison.
This village still wears the ribbons of mourning for their “angels.” They’re immortalized in memorials, makeshift and carved in rock, and through the voices of the parents, who’ve risen from their grief to shake up our dulled senses, our short attention spans, and our defensive desire to turn away from the Ground Zero of school shootings.
“What happened in Newtown can happen in any town,” Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of 6-year-old Ana, warned us. “Any mother in America can be in my shoes.”
And she was right.
After the California shooting, Mark Barden, father of 6-year-old Daniel, reached out to Richard Martinez, the new face of loss and grief. A misogynist’s random rage killed his innocent son, 20-year-old Christopher Michaels-Martinez, one of six victims.
In a letter, Barden welcomed Martinez into the “extended family” of parents who have lost children to gun violence.
“It is not a family we chose, but a family born from the horrible circumstance...one that’s only growing each day,” he wrote. “My heart breaks for you because I know just a little about the long road ahead of you…It has helped me, and some of the other family members who lost children and family at Sandy Hook Elementary, to come together and advocate for common sense solutions to expanding programs for mental wellness and gun safety solutions.”
But although the Connecticut General Assembly passed some of the toughest firearms restrictions in the country with the parents’ help, the gun control debate remains stagnant and polarized in the rest of the country.
News organizations and gun-safety advocacy groups have attempted to cull statistics about school shootings from news and police reports, but it’s difficult to find reliable research. Only deniers, however, doubt that there’s a gun-violence epidemic sweeping the United Stares, and that our gun homicide rates are the highest in the developed world.
“The country has to do some soul-searching about this,” President Barack Obama said after the Portland High School shooting Tuesday, his face showing the frustration of being unable to pass sensible gun-safety measures through Congress after Sandy Hook. And the realization that gun laws in states like Florida, where the National Rifle Association is more powerful than is imaginable, are more liberalized now.
But there’s also no denying that every community is at risk.
“Never, never, never could we have ever thought this would happen here,” Martha M. Torres, a Sandy Hook grandmother, tells me, her eyes watering at the memory of 21-year-old Adam Lanza’s rampage through Sandy Hook Elementary after killing his mother at home with the guns she collected and gifted him.
Torres’ granddaughter, Sofia Lebinski, then 7, survived the massacre by sheer luck. The killer chose to stalk the opposite hall. On the day I visit Newtown, Sofia and her classmates, who now go to school a 30-minute ride away in another town, were celebrating the end of the school year with a touching musical presentation that honored their lost schoolmates.
That same night, in a lecture hall at Newtown High School, I witness a milestone: The architects and designers of Svigals & Partners of New Haven — who have been working for the last year with community groups in Newtown to rebuild Sandy Hook Elementary – unveil to the public the final renderings of a gorgeous new school, being built with a $50 million state grant.
The unique design, in the words of architect and sculptor Barry Svigals, “embraces the children.” An undulating wooden façade, a rain garden, and courtyards that connect to the natural environment are some of the features. The design also preserves unpaved “the sacred ground” where the children were killed. To memorialize, or not, the tragedy there has not been decided.
The school will have lockable doors and other high-end security measures that won’t be revealed to the public, one of the Svigals team members assures the audience. The campus will seem like “a regular school” but administrators will be able to detect “who is going in and out.”
Security, however, remains a sensitive issue.
“They say there will be security,” Torres says, “but how do we really know if our children are safe? No school is ever totally safe.”
Her assessment is on-point and applicable beyond Sandy Hook, a stand-in for every town.
Once a farming haven, Newtown is now the fifth largest town in land mass in Connecticut, a bedroom community to Danbury, Waterbury, and New York. When I arrive, I drive up a hill along Church Hill Road to the most familiar of the landmarks before Sandy Hook, the mammoth flag pole erected in 1876 at the center of Main Street.
At Edmond Town Hall, I meet the town’s historian, Daniel Cruson, author of various tomes that chronicle life in Newtown from its 1708 founding along the north-south axis of a ridge. Cruson’s grim task these days is to secure mementos, photographs, news clippings, and any object that will tell the story of the Sandy Hook tragedy for generations to come.
In a city vault, sit the incinerated remains of thousands of flowers, cards, and mementos left by mourners who came to town after the shooting. It took two trucks to remove the items that lined the main road for two miles into Sandy Hook. Hundreds of teddy bears and toys not ruined by weather were donated to children’s charities. Also stored are letters of condolence from all over the world, all of it kept in gratitude.
Forever marked by gun violence, this gentle town has had to deal with another level of infringement: conspiracy theorists spreading the rumor that the massacre never happened, that it was a hoax to disarm citizens.
One of these lunatics called the town’s funeral home, asked to speak to the funeral director, and in a serious but devious tone, asked: “I just want to know one thing: How did you fake it?”
That’s how much horror this town has endured.
And still, the spirit of healing prevails.
I walk out Edmond Hall to clear skies, and by the end of the night, when I leave the presentation by the architects at Newtown High School, I’ve witnessed the bravest community in America attempt to rebuild and rise above loss and grief.
For a moment, I feel like many here do: hopeful.
“This is a very special town,” Cruson had told me.
It is, and if the unspeakable happened here, it can happen anywhere. It is happening everywhere. We can and should move on from tragedy, but this nation cannot afford to forget the angels of Sandy Hook Elementary — children and educators who paid with their lives for our right to stockpile assault weapons in our homes.
When I wrote about the Newtown massacre the day it happened, I asked: How many more innocents have to die at the hands of a madman with a gun before we wake up, America?
Let us love our children more than our guns, I begged.
And as I stroll this lovely town, the plea rings ever stronger.