My 5-year-old is done explaining rockdown, but my mind still lingers.
My second child was born days before Sandy Hook happened, so I can say exactly how long it’s been since that tragedy. I usually have a thick skin when it comes to dealing with things like that. It’s how journalists work, by keeping the heart still to sort through the facts and details with a clear mind. I sobbed for days after Sandy Hook, clutching my newborn to my chest. I had never done that from hearing bad news.
David Altheide, a Regents Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied the relationship between media and fear, tells me Sandy Hook is different from other school shootings and other mass shootings because the victims were so young.
“Children this young are very deeply regarded in our culture as innocent and as the most vulnerable in all the world,” Altheide said. “If you were going to come up with a symbol of what innocence is, it’s a newborn baby, totally unprotected and vulnerable.”
The images of distraught parents grieving plus the sharing of our grief on social media reinforced our emotional connection to the tragedy and our sense of anxiety, Altheide said.
“Sandy Hook, along with Columbine, are the symbolic golden tip of terror against our children,” Altheide said. These two school shootings connect to a greater discourse of fear in our society, driven by the media, that goes back to the era of Stranger Danger, when we feared our children would be kidnapped, he said.
Three in 10 parents worry about their children’s safety in school, according to a Gallup poll. And statistically, I am also in two categories most likely to worry: mothers and nonwhite parents.
“Some of this is a bit contrived,” Altheide said. “The things we fear are things we cannot do a lot about.”
Sometimes, I am reminded of Sandy Hook when I least expect it, like recently, while I was standing in line at the National Book Festival with my two daughters, waiting to get a children’s book about Hispanic American Heroes signed by its author, the U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. As the girls sprawled out on the red carpet laid over the concrete convention center floor and whined about how bored they were, I flipped through the book. At the end, I found a poem, a sestina for Victoria Leigh Soto, another teacher shot at Sandy Hook while shielding her students. I can visualize her face, her beaming smile, bright eyes and long dark hair, even though there is no illustration of her in this book. I read:
They went into lockdown they covered windows and sang to the children
Said, “I love you,” under desks, bathrooms, storage rooms, quiet strength
Strips of paper, crayons, in the midst of terror, a drooling gun, a teacher
Those are the images that come to mind whenever I get near a school, the ones that make me feel dread in my gut. It’s been nearly three years since Sandy Hook, but schools still seem like fortresses. In its own way, it all feels a bit like the nuclear disaster I feared as a child, the radioactive waves still rippling out long after the initial bang.