Reflections on Newtown: No Safe Place



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If it were fiction, you couldn’t call the place Newtown. That would be too much. You couldn’t name the devoted, martyred principal Dawn. Or the shooter Adam Lanza—lanza meaning “lance” or “weapon,” but also “thief.”

You couldn’t have twenty first-graders as victims—for first grade is a most magical age when the doors to reading swing open, and every grin has two missing front teeth. First grade, when every child is a Picasso.

I spent my own first grade year not far from Newtown, in New Britain, in Mrs. Donovan’s class. Her face is indelible, even now, as are her lessons of no-frills kindness and dignity. There were kids in our class who came to school unwashed and hungry. Mrs. Donovan sat us in pairs: those who could beside those who needed a bit of help.

New Britain in the late 1960s was old, as forgone and polarized as Newtown before December 14 was idyllic and privileged. Racial tensions, socioeconomic divides, and violence were part of our lives. One sunny afternoon my fourteen-year-old brother and his friend were mugged by a gang while walking downtown. Just up the road from our house, the first black family moved in, and on any given summer’s evening their bigot neighbor sat in a chair on his front lawn and bellowed racial slurs.

Most nights after dinner, our family retired to our den to watch the evening news—my parents in their given chairs and the kids on the floor; together we absorbed the day’s graphic footage of the Vietnam War.

In other words, life wasn’t any less troubling or violent—the human animal was as given to evil, avarice, and foolishness then as now. But the scale seemed more human. Life wasn’t so jacked up. It wasn’t a hundred bullets a minute in a schoolroom. It wasn’t video-game carnage, techno-hyper-stim, and endless cable talk loop. It was angry but less cynical. It wasn’t so numb. There was more innocence to balance things.

When living in Connecticut, you can’t see the horizon. For every expanse of lawn, there is a row of bushes and trees, the shadows beneath, the leafy canopy above, blocking the distant view. In other words, you can’t see what’s coming until it’s on top of you.

I keep thinking of that one brave girl who had the presence of mind to play dead while the rest of her classmates were slaughtered. What a terrible burden she now has, to live as their witness. That goes for the rest of us too.