Last Friday morning, at approximately 7:30 am, I drove my youngest son to school. On the way, he told me about his role as a School Ambassador, and how, the day before, a new kid from Cameroon arrived at school, knowing very little English. He was put in my son’s charge, and is to shadow my son's in his classes for a few days. My son is to show him the ropes and hopefully acclimate him just a little as he makes his way, probably feeling quite frightened, in a new school and a new country.
By the end of the first day, my son had already introduced the new boy to another boy he knew in school from Cameroon, who had entered my son’s 5th grade class mid-last year. I was so proud of him to think of making this introduction, and the empathy that created the impulse to do so.
On Friday morning at approximately 9:00 am, Adam Lanza stormed his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and, after having already killed his mother at home, mowed down 20 kindergarteners and several teachers, including the principal and the school psychologist, before killing himself.
This is the exact opposite of empathy. It was a psychotic, horrific act, one that has destroyed not only the lives of those who were killed, but with reverberations throughout their families and community. The impulses that must have been at work in the killer’s brain are frightening to contemplate.
I didn’t know where to begin to write about this story, only that I had to write about it. There are so many aspects of it to parse:
- The parents. When you become a parent, you realize that your heart is tottering dangerously on your sleeve, and will never again be tucked neatly away in your chest. No parent can imagine getting the phone call that the Newtown parents received on Friday. Every parent thinks about what he or she might do in the same situation, but for many of us, even the neural pathways leading to a coherent thought about it are blocked. Losing a child is the most painful thing one can experience, bar none. Regardless of the passing of time and hopefully their ability to resume living, the lives of these parents will be forever scarred.
- The children who lived. I read that the police officers who escorted the surviving children out of the school told them to hold hands with a partner and avert their eyes. I’m not sure that simply by not looking would they find themselves in less of a stressful and sad place, but I appreciate that the adults in charge realized that the less of the carnage the children saw of their classmates, the better. At least that was one tiny thing they could be spared.
- The children who died. Adorable, innocent, five and six year olds. Enough said.
- Our country’s love affair with guns. I simply do not understand the mania around gun ownership, heralded by the NRA and gun-loving Americans. We all know that the Second Amendment had everything to do with colonists’ need to protect themselves against further feared incursions from the British and other enemies. The muskets our forefathers stashed in their homes were an extension of themselves – their guns were tools for survival. I get that. But today? I see nothing but blood and mayhem and gang warfare and massacres caused by the ownership of guns. Enough.
- Our country’s inability to support those with mental illness. Whatever demons caused the killer to rampage, they obviously were not part of a healthy, functioning adult brain. I remember the 1970s, when the mental health system deregulated the institutions and suddenly, the New York City streets of my youth were overrun with homeless and mentally ill people. I have never understood why we as a society are so unable to take care of our own.
- The teachers. I am the proud child of a public school teacher. I had wonderful and memorable teachers growing up, and my children have wonderful and memorable teachers today. Teachers change lives. From all accounts, in this story, the teachers saved lives. We cannot give enough thanks.
- The first responders. What must it be like to be a big, burly police officer, and be called in to an elementary school, where everything is in miniature, and be asked to cover the bodies of 20 little children with tarps and put up emergency tape around the crime scene? I would cry too.
- Our spiritual leaders. Both Friday night and Saturday morning I had the remarkable experience of being able to grieve in my spiritual community. It happened that my mother’s yahrzeit was this past weekend -- the opportunity on the Jewish calendar to say mourner’s kaddish, the prayer you intone for a loved one on the anniversary of their death. At Adat Shalom, we held a moment of silence for the Newtown families, and I was then able to stand and say both a personal kaddish for my mother and a universal kaddish for all the victims of the tragedy. Then we sang a festive and rousing Chanukah song, on the eighth and brightest night of the holiday of lights, led by the sweet children in our community playing their instruments and raising their voices. Praying and singing in community is a balm for the soul.
- Our country. What are we going to do? About gun control? About supporting those with mental illness? About healing our nation’s wounds and trying to actually accomplish needed, positive social change? I am grateful that this happened after the election, for it would have turned into an ugly political football a month ago. I hope President Obama seizes this opportunity to rise up and take bold action now that he no longer has burden of re-election to consider.
- And finally, the rest of us. After we’re done hugging our children closer and tighter, and crying, and crying some more, and spilling large vats of vitriol and outrage on Facebook, what are we going to do?
My son’s experience with the new boy in his school is a beacon for me. Whatever else I do, whatever political actions I engage in or letters I write or rallies I attend, I want to remember what motivated my son to help his new schoolmate. Empathy. Compassion. A sense of duty and what’s right.
It’s our turn to take each other’s hands and make a difference.
photo by bsabarnowl via flickr