No, I haven’t become beautiful all of a sudden. We have a guest blog from a mom, and a teacher, and a very good writer. It’s longer than our blogs usually are; but it is well worth sitting down with a cuppa something, and reading through, at least once. You will probably read it often.
Heather raises the important questions; and I know that some of you probably won’t agree with everything she says. So we are looking for YOUR thoughts. Post them on the blog and we’ll get a conversation started. Washington, Ottawa, London, Paris, Canberra, and the rest, do not have the answers.
By Heather Conn Byrd
Maybe, just maybe, if I write about my feelings about the Sandy Hook tragedy, I’ll be able to find ways to focus on something else. Maybe I will be able to drag myself away from my computer, to tame my need to obsessively read every new article and absorb every new piece of information, to read every word describing the victims and what kind of people they were . . . to look at photos of those sweet, smiling faces. Maybe I’ll be able to “move on.”
But there’s this big part of me that doesn’t want to. I don’t want to just “move on” from this. I want to hang in there with this grieving community, even though they’re hundreds of miles away and will never even know who I am. I want to support them by honoring those they’ve lost, by studying those faces, by praying for the families of the victims and for the survivors. It somehow feels like I’m coming alongside them, holding their hands from afar, by allowing myself to feel the anguish and cry the tears; by fully recognizing what has been lost here.
As a parent, I’ve had to ruthlessly guard my mind from thoughts of “what if that were my child in the photos? My child’s little body, broken and lifeless? My future without my son or daughter?” I know I can’t allow my thoughts to spiral in that direction, opening the door of my heart to fears that will paralyze me. So that’s the end of this paragraph.
As a teacher, I can’t help but think about the what-ifs and imagine a similar scenario playing itself out in my school. Since I’m on a leave of absence this year, I felt somehow displaced on Monday morning, knowing my friends were going back to their classrooms and their students, undoubtedly playing the whole scene out in their minds, substituting their classrooms and closets and hallways (and students and colleagues) for those at Sandy Hook. I wanted to be there with them, locking arms emotionally and helping each other through the day. In the aftermath of Friday’s tragedy, I flashed back to every lockdown drill I’ve ever done, analyzing the procedures, wondering what would have been the best action to take had this evil come to our school instead of theirs.
And as I read of the heroics of the teachers at Sandy Hook, those who didn’t survive and those who did, I could completely relate. Not because I or anyone I know has ever lived through something like this, but because I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that every teacher I know would have taken the same measures to protect their kids (a.k.a. students), despite the risk to their own lives.
I don’t say that to somehow minimize the heroism of the Sandy Hook educators.
Educators like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, who lost their lives trying to lunge at the gunman.
Or Anne Marie Murphy, the teacher’s aide who tried to cradle and comfort sweet Dylan Hockley, who was wrapped in her arms when they were both found dead.
Or sweet, young Victoria Soto, who saved some of her students by hiding them away in a closet and trying to divert the gunman before he took her life.
Or the countless teachers and staff who huddled with children in closets and bathrooms and classrooms, comforting them, pushing their own terror down deep so they could remain steady and calm for their students . . . knowing they might die that day.
I’m just saying that while we teachers don’t always have all the answers to unlock a student’s academic difficulties, and although every once in a while we might not email back as quickly as a parent would like, and despite the fact that we just don’t always get stuff right . . . we would not hesitate to risk our lives for the sake of our students.
Last night I went to my daughter’s chorus concert, and the first group to sing was the third grade chorus. As I listened to their tiny voices, I scanned their faces and spotted several who were in my second grade class last year. I suddenly had to catch myself, arrest my own emotions, and force myself not to burst into tears as the “what-if” thoughts tried to push their way to the surface of my mind. I love those kids, and they are not unlike those twenty beautiful children who lost their lives on Friday. I wanted to rush up to the stage and hold their little cheeks in my hands and kiss the tops of their heads and just feel that they are safe.
Sidebar: I surely hope it doesn’t seem like I’m responding to this tragedy as a teacher more than I am as a PARENT, for goodness sake. Like I said before, I can’t allow myself to go there, because of past experiences with irrational, paralyzing fear and the dark place where it takes my mind and spirit.
Of course, as a result of this awful, terrible event, many discussions going on around our country and in the media have to do with three big questions: What about mental illness? What about gun control? Where was God? I have a few thoughts about those questions.
What about mental illness? If we haven’t figured out by now that mental illness is REAL and that it causes people to do completely irrational things, then we’re just plain stupid. And I’m not talking about Asperger’s, which has seemingly come to the forefront of the discussion, even though it is not a mental illness. It would take a whole heck of a lot more than Asperger’s to cause someone to do something so heinous. There’s a whole range of things that ARE mental illnesses, but many are very difficult to identify and diagnose, and even harder to treat. Or so I’ve read. Lord knows I’m no expert, but I don’t think you have to have a degree in psychiatry to understand the basic fact that it’s all very complicated.
Surely we can do more to reach and extend love to those who suffer from these illnesses, more to educate the public, more to understand the so-called “signs” of mental illness, and find ways to address them as early as possible. More to support their families, for whom my heart breaks. Truly. My heart breaks for the families of those who are seen by most to be weird or anti-social, those who are marginalized. Even those who aren’t any of those things but who suffer from such severe clinical depression that they take their own lives. I’ve known these people, and I know their surviving families, and I have fiercely grappled with these situations.
Just like my heart breaks for them, my heart breaks for the mother of the shooter. This poor woman was the person who loved him the most, more than anyone in the whole world, and who no doubt agonized over how to meet his needs, wondering if he would ever be able to function somewhat normally within a society that would largely never understand him or even try to do so.
This young man who committed such a reason-defying act of murder was once a sweet, innocent toddler. He was once a tender first-grader, just like the children he slaughtered. His mother was perhaps the only one who could have loved him enough to have hope for a future for him, and even she must have felt hopeless at times. Please don’t take this the wrong way . . . but I wonder if her death was the one merciful thing about this whole ordeal, even though it surely wasn’t intended to be. I cannot begin to fathom what her existence would be like today if she were alive. Can I say that, even as a Christ-follower who believes in the power of God to heal every broken heart and bring us through even the most horrifying reality? Am I allowed to think that the best place for her to be today is in the arms of our Heavenly Father and hope like crazy that she’s there? Dear God, let it be so.
What about gun control? I don’t like guns. I’m a little afraid of them, I don’t want them in my house, and I personally know of the tragedy that can occur in a split second that would otherwise be impossible were it not for the presence of a legally-purchased gun. Still, I’m generally not in favor of a sweeping motion that would prohibit those who feel differently than I do from having the right to have a gun. But at this moment, this issue is unavoidable, and it would be pointless to be even remotely bothered by the idea that many people want to seriously engage the discussion and call for some changes.
We can’t deny the fact that private gun ownership played a role in this tragedy. The shooter’s access to the kind of weapon he used in his rampage really can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. I don’t think it’s unfair to ask why someone would or should have an assault-style weapon in his or her home. I’m not saying I know what to do about it, but I don’t think we’re in a position to just sweep that detail under the rug and roll our eyes when well-meaning people want to significantly explore the issue. We’re not the first country to have an event like this one bring the debate over gun control to a head and lead to a definitive and drastic measure.
Personal gun ownership has been outlawed across the UK for years, resulting from a similar tragedy that occurred when a lone gunman entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland, seventeen years ago and killed sixteen five- and six-year-olds and their teacher. This is such a volatile issue, and we have passionate commentary on both sides to look forward to over the next I-don’t-know-how-long. I tend to agree with the rhetoric that says that if we disarm all the law-abiding citizens, only the criminals will have access to firearms, and the good guys will have no way of defending themselves.
Perhaps just tighter restrictions should be put in place. If it’s harder for regular citizens to buy guns in the first place, surely there will be fewer guns available for criminals to buy illegally (like the killers in the Columbine massacre did). If only certain types of weapons are legal to own (like basic handguns), the more potentially destructive ones won’t be accessible to people like the Sandy Hook shooter. But I have to admit that the idea of taking away a basic right and freedom, even for good reasons and with the greatest of intentions, makes me more than a little nervous.
Where was God? I know, in my heart, that God was there. Somehow. I don’t believe He had willfully removed Himself from that place, nor do I believe for one second that just because of some silly little idea like “no prayer in schools” that we have removed him. Do we really think so highly of ourselves that we could implement some puny piece of legislation that is able to keep the Almighty God out of anywhere? Oh, the arrogance of that notion. I know for a fact that he has been at my school every single day I was there, because his Spirit lives in me; and no flimsy rule prohibiting prayer or Bible reading in public school can keep Him out. That’s one of the reasons I teach at a public school. Just by being there, the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit flow right out of me and every other Christian teacher and directly into the lives of students, parents, and co-workers through silent prayers, words of encouragement, hugs and pats on the head, high-fives, attaboys and attagirls . . . and LOVE. God is love, and if you’ve read or watched anything about Sandy Hook, you know there was plenty of that going around on that terrible day and in the days since.
Still, I have to wonder how it could have happened in the first place, how God could have “allowed” such a terrible thing, why He Himself didn’t shield those precious, innocent children from the bullets of a madman. But I will never, ever know the answers to those questions. None of us will. I have long since had to come to grips, as so many of us have, with the fact that sometimes unthinkable and atrocious things happen in this world. I don’t know why. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.
I’ve heard it suggested by the truly insane that God sent that gunman. I am personally offended by that thought, and may God have mercy on those who so grossly misrepresent Him. I have heard some connect this tragedy to a frightening condition of moral decay in our society, and I do believe there is merit to that argument. I don’t believe events like this are God’s “punishment” for the fact that we’ve murdered millions of unborn children and have arrogantly redefined His standard of marriage (which we have), as some have been accused of implying.
I also don’t believe that the gunman was some kind of unwitting product of an amoral culture, himself a victim of societal decay, unable to be blamed for his actions. On the contrary, and although I won’t even pretend to know how his mental illness factors into all this, he was responsible for this terrible thing, and by all accounts it was, without a doubt, premeditated. But perhaps the very possibility of violent tragedies like this one, along with countless other horrible things, is another symptom of our Godlessness.
Sidebar: Case in point: Do you know what the other “recommended” stories on MSNBC’s main page were, alongside news of the funeral for Victoria Soto? I’ll tell you. They included news of a $23million decision against a teacher who repeatedly sexually abused a fifth grade student in his classroom, an after-school basketball coach who was busted for trying to get a teenage boy to perform in same-sex porn videos for money, and a California couple who were shot when they met with someone who answered the Craigslist ad for an iPhone they were selling. If these aren’t evidence of moral decay, I don’t know what is.
The one Truth I know, above all else, is that God is. He IS. We can’t know everything that means, because His ways are higher than (i.e. beyond our capability to perceive, understand, or otherwise know) ours ways, His thoughts higher than our thoughts. The good news is that His love is also higher than ours, which means He loves us all in ways we don’t have the capacity to understand, and His love is able to permeate even the darkest of circumstances and provide healing light and life. He wants us to respond to that love by allowing Him into our lives, to transform us, and to comfort us in tragic times, to give us beauty in exchange for our ashes. He wants to redeem the ugliness in our lives, our broken hearts, and anything else that needs fixing in us.
He welcomed those little souls into an eternity with him on Friday, and He is there in Newtown with those who have lost so much, comforting them, holding them, ready to bring peace in the absence of any human comprehension, which will never come. He is poised to take their ashes and give them beauty in exchange, somehow, miraculously, in ways we can never fathom. We’re never going to figure it out, folks. But we can accept it. And then we can rest in it, and leave the heavy lifting to Him.
Here are links to some of the very thought-provoking articles I’ve read over the last few days:
A letter from a teacher to the teachers at Sandy Hook.
An article written by the mother of a son with serious mental illness.
Profiles of the Victims. Read what their families want the world to know about them. Look at their pictures. Say their names out loud.
Acts of Kindness Campaign. It started with 26, but surely it should include 27. Maybe even 28 . . . the world lost Adam Laska a long time ago, and that loss is tragic, too.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I think I have needed to articulate all this. It barely scratches the surface of what’s in my heart, actually, but it’s something. If even one person responds and says something to the effect of, “I feel ya, Heather,” it will mean something to me.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with my thoughts, but I know we all agree that this is a terrible, terrible thing, and that we are all broken just a little because of it. And we can agree on LOVE. It is the very nature of God, and it’s available to and through all of us. Let’s find more and more ways, and people to love, my friends.