This first-person essay by Sarah Walker Caron, the Bangor Daily News’ senior features editor, first ran in December 2014. We are republishing it because of Wednesday’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
This past November, on an unusually warm evening, I sat at a table in a Bangor classroom for my son Will’s parent-teacher conference. Across from me, Will’s teacher wore a cloudy expression, as she opened a binder to show me a personal essay he’d recently written.
When I glanced down to the page, I wasn’t surprised to see the words “bang, bang, bang,” but I didn’t have to see the words to know the essay’s subject. The words seared into me, nevertheless, and I took a breath. I wondered if Will’s teacher knew his history.
My son is a Sandy Hook survivor.
On Dec. 14, 2012, a deranged, heavily armed man blasted his way into Will’s school and stole the lives of 20 beautiful children and six amazing educators before turning the gun on himself. It was the worst school shooting in United States history.
We only refer to the day as “12/14.” And we don’t speak of that man — in fact, I never speak or write his name — because he stole the innocence of a school of children, including my son.
In Will’s essay, he matter-of-factly detailed that morning. He and his classmates were doing jumping jacks. (They always started the day with exercise.) But that morning, the clatter of jumping kids was interrupted by the bangs of gunfire in the hallway.
Will’s teacher rushed the kids into lockdown position: crouching in a corner of the classroom. The classroom door was closed, but unlocked. The rapid pops of gunfire drew closer.
I’ve heard Will’s experience before. I know the details — where he was, what he felt, the things he heard — but reading it in Bangor jolted me. It made me realize that no matter where we are, it’s something we’ll never truly leave behind.
Prior to 12/14, when the world descended on Sandy Hook, Connecticut, it was the quietest of small towns. A hamlet of the larger Newtown, Sandy Hook had a few good restaurants, a deli, a toy shop, a liquor store but not much else.
At Sandy Hook School, joyful educators would greet the kids each morning as they piled off the school buses. Principal Dawn Hochsprung was effervescent, blessed with a silly streak and a passion for education. During the annual book fair, she’d dress up as the “book fairy” and flit among classrooms to spread glitter, joy and excitement about literature.
On the first day of second grade, Will — who was then new to the school — met the first grade teacher whose classroom was across the hall from his. They spoke about his old school, and she realized that Will’s first grade teacher there was her close friend. This bonded them. He relished his morning chats with that teacher before heading to class.
Her name was Victoria Soto. One of the hardest things I had to do as a mother, after 12/14, was tell Will that she hadn’t survived the shooting.
Tiptoeing to recovery
In the early days after 12/14, two things were repeated to me. The first was advice from my mother. As a parent, she said I had to set the tone for how my kids — Will, and his younger sister, Paige, who was not in the school that day — reacted to what happened. I couldn’t let it consume me. So while my children saw me cry and mourn, they also saw me rise above and find a way back to normal, a little bit each day.
When Christmas arrived a mere 11 days later, we celebrated in a big way — we had to. Part of me wanted to forget the holiday altogether, but it was important for my kids to let joy return. And when the time came to return to school three weeks after 12/14, I smiled and reassured them with hugs, kisses and “I love yous” even though it felt too soon.
I didn’t let them see my tears or hear my sobs. They don’t know how I would clutch my phone all day long in the days, weeks and months that followed.
The second bit of wisdom was passed to me by countless others — TV producers, editors, other writers, friends, family and medical professionals. They told me children are resilient. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I resented this every time I heard it because these people weren’t quieting Will when he woke up screaming from nightmares, or comforting Paige when she’d climb into my bed.
Two years later, I am happy to say they were right.
Paige overcame her fears with the help of art therapy and time. Will’s nightmares passed as he came to terms with the horror he experienced. Will lets me know things are OK, that fireworks sound nothing like the gunfire he heard outside his classroom door. That crowds are OK. But that sometimes other loud noises are not.
And Paige understands that her experience was uniquely different than her brother’s, but it doesn’t make any of her recovery any less important.
A new school, a new life
For third grade, Will returned to his old school, leaving Sandy Hook behind. He felt safe there. Paige remained at Sandy Hook which had relocated to a borrowed building in a neighboring town. She thrived.
But juggling two distinctly different school schedules was a challenge. And growing up in the shadow of Sandy Hook wasn’t easy. The stress and anxieties dragged on for parents — it was hard to escape.
When I decided to move to Bangor, finding the right school environment for my kids was paramount. I researched all options, visited schools, talked to principals and educators and turned to my friends and family. And I thought long and hard about what they really needed from the schools they attend.
At each school, I disclosed where we were from and what my children had experienced. It was necessary. Each one told me of their security plans and the things that had changed since 12/14 for them. Our building is safe, each told me. I explained that while I was telling them about our history, I didn’t want it to follow my children any more than necessary.
As the mother of a Sandy Hook survivor, I listened to what the schools had said about security, but it wasn’t what I cared about. While I appreciate the attention to those details, I know what happened to us can happen anywhere — and no amount of locked doors, security cameras or safety plans will stop it.
As a mother, I can prepare my kids for life. I can teach them to live well and spread kindness. I can help them with homework, encourage them on the soccer field and show them how to live life to its fullest. And I can teach them to be fearless, despite what happened.
But no matter how fervently I shield them from reality (and I don’t), the fact is that bad things happen. Evil people exist. As a dear friend reminds me often, “Bad things happen on bad days.” If something horrible is going to happen, it just will, because the same free will that allows me to fearlessly face each day allows others to choose what they do — good or bad.
So ultimately, I chose the best academic schools for my kids. Will has a thirst for knowledge and needs to be challenged. Paige reads voraciously and makes friends quickly. I looked for the things that would make their educational lives good.
That’s what’s most important to me.
The years teach wisdom
On 12/14, Will learned that life isn’t always good, pleasant or fair. He learned there are people who will do horrific things for seemingly no reason at all. He learned that you never know when the people you care about will be taken from you.
He also learned there are parts of your history that are private, and what happened that day is one of those parts for him. He shares it with me, his father and sometimes his teachers — but he prefers to keep it quiet. When he wrote his personal narrative in school, he asked his teacher not to share it with the class.
Will’s teacher, who did know about his history, understood his desire not to share, and agreed that it’s healthy for him to write about it. She asked me if it was OK to tell him he could talk to her, if he wants, and I agreed.
Here in Bangor, we have been able to slip into a life free from the stresses of living in the town touched by horror. While my children’s old schools — both Sandy Hook and the parochial school Will also attended — still experience frequent threats from those intent on re-traumatizing a student body that’s been through so much, it’s quiet here.
Here, robo-calls from the schools tell of school closings and remind of parent-teacher conferences — and they don’t have to start with “First, everything is OK,” like back in Connecticut.
Here, I can forget — if only for a moment — that this happened. My children can be kids again. And that alone is the biggest of blessings.
Do I still worry? I wish I could say no, but even as my anxieties have subsided, they still exist in the peripherals of my mind. I know that my kids are OK — and even as safe as they can be — in schools here. But the nightmares still come for me.
Fortunately, I have good friends who remind me of what matters most: My kids are all right.
After we left Will’s school that warm November evening, I bought him a journal. He is ready now to write about his experience, and I support that. As his mom, I will cheer him on.
Recovery is a journey, not a destination. We can only keep moving forward fearlessly because each day we are here is a precious gift.
Sarah Walker Caron is the senior features editor for the Bangor Daily News. She can be reached at email@example.com.