“What Do We Do Now?" One Parent's Response Post Sandy Hook

As a parent of two young boys and a writing teacher, I feel that creating communities through education can help prevent situations like the massacre in Sandy Hook.

So it is Sunday night in America, and every parent is wondering, “What do I do now?”

Tomorrow morning, we will sweep away the stories about the elementary school shooting like dried-up pine needles, and move on as we pack turkey sandwiches, pull on Batman hats and matching gloves, and walk down cobblestone paths with our children to the bus stop.

We may tweak our routines a bit: we will certainly fight back tears as we hug and kiss our children for long moments, or make sure to thank the bus driver, or drive our kids to school and walk them in ourselves, but most of us will feel relieved at getting back to the routine, or having the chance to talk to friends and neighbors or coworkers about the emotional exhaustion we have felt overwhelmed with all weekend because so many children were murdered, right before the holiday season.

Some people may choose not to send their children to school tomorrow.  I will be envious that my next door neighbor, who homeschools her four children, will not worry about the safety of her precious babies tomorrow.

Like with all traumatic events in America, we will probably live with much fear for the next week or two, but that fear will subside until the next shooting. We will all pray that it won’t happen again, but we know it will because we have a history of mass violence in this country.

But this time, I don’t want to return to the routine, because this will happen again. I think to myself that this New World just is not working out; I want to return to the Old World. Would a private school be safer? Should I move somewhere more rural than my suburban town? Even if a mass shooting never happens here, in my town, and it may because my town is eerily similar in size and status to Newtown, CT – it will happen somewhere. We play Bunco once a month, we take pride in our landscaping, we have about 25,000 residents, and we are surrounded by woods. Here, like in Newtown, CT, every family fits a certain mold, and people that deviate from that mold have a very hard time.

That sense of community evaded Adam Lanza, according to what I am reading in the news. From Columbine to Newtown, the pattern of all of these mass murders points to a specific type of individual: a young male in his teens or twenties that has been pushed to the margins of society.

Black clothing, carrying a briefcase, he is described as a loner that keeps to himself.  In this case, the suspect’s parents were rich, but divorced. His older brother hadn’t talked to him in more than two years. Dad remarried and lived 40 minutes away, while mom seemed pre-occupied with her Doomsday Preppers movement, Bunco, and landscaping, according to the reports. At this point, it looks like his family turned a blind eye to this kid, and so did his community.

In America in 2012, kids like this slip through the cracks. Maybe they’re bullied, or worse, they’re flat out ignored. We’ve all felt that way for a moment or two: maybe the first day of college when we knew no absolutely nobody and we felt isolated, or when we started a new job, or when we attended a conference alone.

But this feeling of panic and isolation is temporary, and most of us are blessed with the social skills to reach out and break the ice, and take the first step to making new friends. But for some people, that step is too difficult; they do not have the social skills, or confidence or biological hardwiring to do it. Imagine living like that for years.

As a society, we need to actively create positive communities where every student is accepted, not just ones that fit the mold.

I get a lot of students in the writing class I teach at Bucks County Community College that fit the description of Adam Lanza. Often, their lives play out inside their minds and they only feel comfortable having social interactions through computers.

My goal is always to create a learning atmosphere where they feel comfortable, valuable, and befriended. I don’t think that’s any sort of noble mission, but what I hear from this group of teenagers is that they’ve been ostracized, ignored, devalued, or made to feel ashamed in previous classrooms.

They do not blame the teachers or other students; a lot of them take personal responsibility for allowing themselves to get pushed to the margins. More than any other aspect of teaching, I am aware of the importance of creating a sense of community where all students feel they are part of something important. It’s a technique I learned from my mentor, Dr. Michele Lise Tarter at The College of New Jersey, and it’s an objective I will always have for every class I teach. Creating this community is easy, but it just takes time.

On the first day of class, we play an icebreaker game in which students are paired up and they have to tell their stories; they should explain who they are, what they are into, and what goals they have for my writing class and for college. During the icebreaker, they go outside or for coffee, to Tyler Gardens or the quad. They decide where they feel comfortable talking and writing and making a new friend. Then, they have to listen to their partner’s story and write it down. After about 20 minutes, they come back inside, where I have reformed all of the desks into a circle, and we spend the next hour getting to know each other. We talk, we laugh, we get to know each other. And literally, magic happens. This bond is created that ties us together all semester, and often stays with the students for years as they remain friends long after submitting their final paper for my class. Over the semester, all students have opportunities to find their voices through writing.

During class discussions, individuals are pulled from the margins into the center of the circle. The topics we discuss are largely student-directed, but they are not what people think the Millenials would be into. Sure, they love tearing up Twilight and analyzing the ratings systems for video games, but they really shine and grow when they read primary sources, especially Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” or Gerald Graff’s “Hidden Intellectualism.” In the majority of cases, this class is the first time they’ve been told that their opinion matters.

Their transformations are incredible.  To begin, their thoughts are buzzing wildly in their heads, but by consciously and critically thinking about the issues we discuss in class, such as educational reform academic integrity, America’s history of violence, or the social construction of gender, they are able to quiet their thoughts and identify the most powerful and prolific of their ideas. They learn the ability to reach into their minds and focus on their most important ideas, like Professor Dumbledore extracting silvery ribbons of thoughts in Harry Potter. Then, they deposit them into their papers, which become shimmering Pensieves of opinions, ideas, memories, anecdotes, and thesis statements.  

This is significant because classes like this provide an outlet, a channel, a wellspring for all of the tension, confusion, angst and emotions that overwhelm teenagers. Now I’m not claiming that 28 lives could have been saved by a mere writing class, but I am calling for an imperative to invite others into our communities. At Allen School, Principal Christopher Clarke is already doing that because he emphasizes anti-bullying measures. I think it’s important that we also, as a society, consciously reach out to the kids that are being ignored, and consider that a form of bullying. We can’t pass gun control laws or imprison all the potential criminals, but we can reach out to kids that might need help.

Courtney Polidori is freelance writer and mother to two boys, ages 8 and 3. She teaches writing at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, PA, and is pursuing her master’s degree in English at The College of New Jersey.

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Elisa Baxt December 21, 2012 at 02:28 PM
This is a great, great article. I'm not trying to shift the focus to something I'm involved in, but the kids and coaches of Council Rock's Cross Country Team are planning a 5K Run and 1 mile Walk Fundraiser on Dec 30th at North and all profits will go to a Newtown CT family who lost their son, and the United Way of Western CT. Will you think about walking? Here is the link for registration, and thanks again for your amazing article: https://www.lin-mark.com/RaceDetails.aspx?guid=14bf5329-7bb5-4173-8250-beaad02cf73a
Susan Bingler December 24, 2012 at 02:38 PM
Thank you. You have expressed my thoughts and more - beautifully! These children fall through the cracks of our education system. I'm sending your article by tweet and facebook. Hope this will start a conversation among all who care about children and making our society more inclusive.


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