December 15, 2012

The Conversations We Must Have

Is it okay that I am utterly heartbroken? It is okay that I cried and cried and cried last night? Today, I am trying to go on with life-as-normal and failing and failing but trying. Is that okay? That is what we are supposed to do, right? Get on with life-as-normal, especially when life-as-normal is still life-as-normal. I am so far away, yet I am so close. We all are, right? We all feel that Newtown, CT is, or could be, our home town?

I am from Connecticut. My mom grew up in the town next to Newtown; my dad grew up a few towns over. I have family in the area and my mom still drives through Newtown almost every single day. Is this how I justify how heartbroken I am? Because I know the town, because I am first-and-foremost-and-always-will-be from Connecticut? Because my classmate from high school is the one anchoring the news and reporting on this unbelievable and indescribable tragedy? She has to find the words, she has to comfort my grieving state, and I am having trouble just putting words to paper for a blog post. Is this why it feels so close to my heart? It's close to all of our hearts, right? You feel this too, right?

The pain the families must feel is incomprehensible to me. It's an ache and a shortness of breath when I think of them. My heart shatters when I think of the kids and the teachers in that building. A thousand tiny, irreparable pieces shattered. Is it because I have spent the majority of my life working with kids? Not as an advocate as I have the past few years, but as a lap with a sleeping, drooling five-year-old sprawled across it during a field trip. As a high-five to celebrate a 93 on a quiz, with a squealing and lit-up nine-year-old who comes bounding into the room after school. As a pair of arms that has held a child and just let her cry, "it's okay to be sad, sweetie, let it out, it's okay." As a person who has had some of her very best moments in life gifted to her by a child. We have all had this, right? And that is why all of our hearts are shattered? Yours is shattered too, right? 

How do we tell our children, they are all our children, that they are safe and cared for and do not need to worry? I do not know. But I do know that we have to try.

I am not a parent. But was once a child, I have spent years working with kids, and my friends have children. There is no source I trust more than Mister Rogers and Sesame Street. If you have a child or children in your life, perhaps those are places to start? Do you have any other suggestions? 

My parents talk of the assassination of President Kennedy as their where-were-you-when question to which everyone has an answer. It marked their childhood. I thought Columbine would always be the where-were-you-when question that marked my childhood. Perhaps it was. I can tell you where I was when I found out and how I watched my high school transform in the coming days. The doors that lead to lunch outside on the field were locked and hallway doors that lead to the science wing were closed with new locks installed. A security guard appeared within days. The only way into the building was through one set of front doors. The desks in the front office were rearranged to look outside the glass windows. These changes appear and we re-adjusted. We knew without talking about it why the school days would never be the same. We didn't talk about it. We we had counselors available if we wanted to talk, but I don't know anyone who chose to talk. I wanted to talk about it. I didn't understand why nobody else wanted to talk about it. I felt scared at school, for the first time in my life. I didn't know why other people didn't feel scared. Did locked doors and a new security guard mean that we were safe or in danger? Even as a sophomore in high school, I didn't fully grasp my level of safety or how upset I should be over the events. 

It turns out that I was not alone. About six weeks later, a rumor spiraled about a "hit list" and a gun and then more than one gun and then a bomb threat evacuated the whole building. All rumors started by the student body. And then it happened again. And again. We left the building for bomb threats on a regular basis and a student who was entirely and whole-heartedly innocent of the hate he was accused of was targeted and bullied as dangerous. We talked about it then. The school and the teachers and the students talked about Columbine then. Weeks and weeks after it happened, we finally talked about it. We had assemblies and a "healing wall" and discussions about how scared we all were. I found out I wasn't alone in those first few weeks as a scared student trying to cope silently as I continued on with my school work. It's a hard conversation, I know. But it's important to recognize that this shakes us all to our core.

Unfortunately, Columbine would not end up being my generation's where-were-you-when conversation. It would be September 11th, 2001, two years after Columbine. I was in college at that time. Everything shut down and we grieved as a campus. Cried in the dorm room lounges together and held-hands in a peace circle on the quad. Had memorial services all over campus. We let our hearts break in a safe space. When classes resumed, we didn't pretend we weren't all extremely sad and quite scared. In my "thinking and creating" class we went to the campus gym and silently created. We colored, danced, built, wrote, and sculpted. It was healing for all of us. It wasn't a verbal conversation, but it was our professor's way of telling us it was okay to feel what we felt. And it grew into all of us telling each other that it was okay to feel what we felt. 

And that is what Sesame Street and Mister Rogers say so much more eloquently that I can: tell your children it is okay to feel scared. It is okay to feel sad. And that is what I want to say today also. I am so, so, so sad. I think it's okay. And if you are terribly upset by this event, it is okay to feel sad. 

That this event could occur is incomprehensible to me. Yet, dismissing it as incomprehensible leads us nowhere. These incomprehensible events are occurring again and again and again in the country. In order to stop them, we must understand them. We must understand what causes a twenty-year-old man to walk into a school and kill classrooms full of young children in order to stop it in the future.

I do not mean that we need to determine the motive of the man in this shooting. I mean that we need to have a difficult and thorny conversation as a country about both guns and mental health. There are many, many people who believe that talking about policy during tragedy is wrong. I understand. I so heavy-heartedly understand. I respect that opinion, but in my opinion, it is time to start talking.

More specifically, it is time to start talking with both our heads and our hearts. Gun control in this country is a complicated conversation. It is at the crux of maintaing the security of citizens with the liberty of citizens. This balance has racked our nation since before it was a country. It involves the rights of the federal government and the rights of the states. It involves the very basic, fundamental aspects of what make the United States uniquely the United States. Moreover, it involves a plethora of recent legislation and recent Supreme Court decisions that impact a right that appeared settled for a very long time. It involves special interests that impact legislation and perception of risk versus actual risk. Policy creation on any issue is complex, muddy, and difficult. Policy creation on an issue that represents almost every foundational belief of our entire country is extremely complex, extremely muddy, and extremely difficult. The conversation needs to acknowledge and accept these difficult aspects or we are not going to get anywhere.

I do not believe that we can have a conversation about guns and the United States without a conversation on mental health care. More specifically, the lack of mental health care and the stigma associated with mental health in this country. The connection between mental health and guns is, in my opinion, the place to begin the conversation. I think it is a place where the conversation can begin to make sense of these "incomprehensible" events and find the middle ground between liberty and security. I think it is the place where the people can form a voice louder than the voice of wealthy special interests. We have to do something. We have to start to pull apart these complicated issues and take some type of action to stop these tragic events from occurring. Labeling these events as incomprehensible and dismissing them does not solve the problem.

If we think these conversations are too difficult to have, if we think the stances on these issues are too extreme and too far away from one another to talk with one another, if we think these conversations have no place in the aftermath of horrific events, then we will continue to have conversations with our children about why it is okay to feel sad and try to find the words to assure them that adults are doing everything we can to keep them safe.

My final question is: are we?


  1. I agree - those conversations have to be started somewhere and it should not ever be reactionary... what are all the bureaus / departments for if not having them?

  2. I completely agree, Emily. I understand that talking reasons and prevention when so many people are suffering and hurting seems out of place...but things like this keep happening. And until we address it...and deal with it....similar events are going to keep happening.
    Like you, I am hurting and still reeling from the realization that a man my age woke up one day knowing that he was going to kill elementary aged children. I don't think I'll ever fully come to terms with it....
    <3 Kiersten