YARMOUTH – The children of Sandy Hook Elementary have returned to their classrooms after the shooting that ravaged their school and shook the educational community.
Students’ faces, pressed against the windows of their bus on their first day, seemed to combine hope and anxiety, intermingled feelings that many of us probably shared.
Our hope is that they will be safe. Our hope is that they will continue to find ways to learn, play and heal in peace.
Newtown’s tragedy raises wrenching and complex questions about topics that range from gun control to mental health, parental responsibility to institutional safety.
At home, at work, at school, many of us are finding ways to sort through and handle these complex issues. But the piece of this process that I would like to examine now is how educational environments deal with and respond to trauma. How, in short, schools heal after great loss and pain.
The immediate response of most educators is to protect our students to be sure that safety protocols are in place and be prepared for the worst, whether it’s an earthquake, a tsunami, or the kind of terror unleashed at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown.
For teachers, parents and students alike, it is altogether appropriate that we do so. But other immediate reactions must be honored as well: the desire to help and show empathy.
One of the ways we honored that feeling was through an initiative that two teachers developed called the String of Hope. They invited every member of the school’s community to write a haiku on a flag and then strung together the results — more than 200 poems — and sent it to Connecticut as an emblem.
It was beautiful, inspiring, deeply touching and I am proud that our school chose art as its vehicle for expressing its compassion.
Now that community has asked that such contributions cease; they can’t handle the overflow of good will that we want to share with them. Instead, we are going to have find other ways to help and collectively heal.
Columbine and Virginia Tech built atriums filled with light and peace centers. Newtown will in time create its own monument.
We who were not as directly affected have to devise other creative answers to reflect on this tragedy and sustain positive school cultures in our communities, ones that define safety not only in concrete, necessary protocols, but also through broad and encompassing terms.
Is the community safe from racism, sexism, and bullying? Are we taking good care of each other as learners, professionals, fellow humans committed to raising strong, compassionate children?
We must plan for this kind of safety in every corner of the school. These lessons must be lived inside the curriculum, on the playing field, in the parking lot before and after school, in meetings and in classrooms.
As teachers, we know our goal is to equip our students with skills that allow them academic and intellectual success and the joyful mastery of skills. But we must also prepare our students to face and handle the darkness that is in the world, to cultivate resilience to despair, anxiety and fear. We have, after all, daily opportunities to make our communities better and to respond to one another with care.
My wife once heard a story about a concert pianist who was asked where the best audiences in the world were. His answer: Hiroshima.
In the wake of destruction, there can come a profound ability to listen, to witness, to reverence what is beautiful in the world and to swear allegiance to that so the other, the darkness, will not be allowed to enter again.
Understanding Newtown will take years. A million facets of that horror will unfold over time. And we who were not directly touched must show humility to those whose lives were ended and to those families who lost their children.
But we can honor them in our daily lives. By not forgetting how fragile life is. By listening well to each other. By reinforcing our own capacity to embrace difficulty and not shy from truly difficult work. By taking time to spread kindness and attention, person by person, gesture by gesture, moment by moment.
Brad Choyt is the head of school at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth.