I haven’t lived in Newtown, Connecticut for more than 30 years. I went to Head O’Meadow, not Sandy Hook Elementary. I don’t know anyone who lives in Newtown anymore. It is a town so small and insignificant that the news media had to keep displaying maps of the area so we knew where the hell it was.
But on that awful Friday, the name of the tiny town in which I grew up was splashed all over the news and became a fucking Twitter hashtag in the wake of a horrific massacre.
I awoke to a news flash about a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut and did a double-take. Certainly I must have misheard, I thought. But of course I hadn’t misheard. Switching over to CNN, I immediately felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. Long before it was clear just how unthinkably terrible the news was, I was shaking and crying with grief and rage. I didn’t understand why it was a sort of last straw for me, but it clearly was. And then when the extent of the damage wrought inside that school was known, I could not stop the tears.
There isn’t a day that goes by since December 14, 2012 that I haven’t cried for my hometown. I feel utterly broken by this. There is a blackness in the center of my chest every time I think about it, and it’s still there even when I’m thinking about something else.
Why, I kept wondering, was this hitting me so hard? My memories of Newtown are blurry thanks to the passage of so much time. I don’t have children of my own to feel the pain all parents have felt in the wake of this tragedy. And yet I can’t quite focus. “Routine” still feels like an aspirational goal.
Newtown is a speck on the map. It is a town no one should ever have heard of, for good or bad reasons. Residents are familiar with the necessary points of reference when explaining where they live. No one just says “Newtown” without some clarifying information, including the oft-repeated “No, it’s not Newton.” But none of that will ever be true again. Even after Newtown and Sandy Hook are no longer front-page news or trending hashtags, it will be impossible to bring up those names without conjuring up the senseless murder of 20 children in their elementary school.
Newtown has lost its anonymity, its innocence, forever.
When I studied in England in 1992, people would ask where we were there from. If anyone had heard of Oregon or knew where it was, the only pieces of information they had about the place – a place I love deeply – were the biggest news stories coming out of the state that year: environmentalists fighting for the Spotted Owl in Oregon’s forests and Senator Bob Packwood‘s sex scandal. It was easy to chuckle it off – I knew how useless it was to try to bridge the gap between that level of familiarity with Oregon and my love of the state, but those stories were transitory. Today, neither is mentioned when Oregon comes up in conversation.
Newtown will not have that luxury. This story will outlive every news cycle. The town and its residents will forever bear the burden of what the names “Newtown” and “Sandy Hook” now represent, and the looks of pity or sadness those names will elicit. Most of us immediately think of a school shooting – and not a flower – when we hear the word “Columbine,” so I doubt people will ever need pronunciation lessons again to be familiar with Newtown.
No town should have to bear a burden like this; especially not one so small, so quiet, so unassuming. I fear for my hometown. Will it have the stamina to carry the weight of all this? More to the point, does it have a choice?
I’m reminded of how, every time some terrible tragedy happens, people talk about how the horror could have befallen any one of us. Never is this made so plain as when it happens in your hometown, where you lived when you were the very same ages as the children who were so brutally gunned down last Friday. I feel ashamed now that I haven’t been a more vocal proponent of stricter gun control laws and readily accessible mental health care in this country. It’s easy to express sympathy, to send donations, to light candles, to offer prayers. But when it hits, quite literally, too close to home – then it’s personal.
I recognize that I am in no way impartial about this anymore, that I don’t have the appropriate distance from the issues with which to conduct a reasonable and rational conversation about what needs to change. I’ve had it with lines like “guns don’t kill people” or “it’s not the right time to talk about gun control,” and I can’t be held responsible for anything I might scream at someone who has the misfortune of saying anything like that near me. I cannot be calm about this topic now. But I know that there are extremely smart and reasonable people out there who are capable of leading a discussion that includes both gun control and mental health treatment, along with the myriad other components that must be included in the conversation.
The President, bravely showing his humanity as he wiped away tears on that terrible day, and again at the inter-faith service in the Newtown High School auditorium two days later, said that things need to change. Yes, these are complex issues, and no, there isn’t going to be one simple solution. But, as the President put it:
“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”
We must do better than this. We must be better than this.
To let those children die without doing anything to try to address the problems that led to their murders would be criminal. Clearly, something has to give. It’s up to us whether that “something” gives in the direction of gun owners or gun victims.
A Note About the Artwork
The graphics in this post were created by artist Jay Roeder, who lives near Newtown and has spent enough time there that he wanted to do something. His beautiful graphics are being used on the We Are Newtown Facebook page and have been turned into T-shirts that are being given to residents of Newtown. He kindly allowed me to use them in this post as well. Thanks so much, Jay, for both the lovely artwork and for being so generous about its use.