The unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary shook all of us to the core. It is no wonder we were so deeply affected when the young victims were 6 and 7 years old. Do you know 6-year-olds? They still need help to eat lunch - opening a fruit cup, cutting a piece of meat, knowing how much ketchup is too much. A cold day presents a terrific challenge to them with extra clothing, boots, hats, gloves and those evasive zippers.
Many still cannot tie their shoes for gym. Their hands wave wildly when asked for volunteers - most don't have a question or an answer, just a story they passionately want to tell. At 6 or 7, they rush to be first or dawdle to talk to their friends - friends who hang the moon. These are the innocent years of unlimited potential and hope for the future.
To have such young lives taken is unimaginable. In the last month, we have all hugged our children a little tighter and been thankful for their precious lives. In the quiet, we have shuddered to think of the parents who lost a young child. We have prayed for their healing. We have worried. We transfer their pain into our own reality and wonder if we would have the strength to take the next breath or to get up the next morning.
For me this wasn't a distant act of violence. My nephew goes to school just a few miles from Sandy Hook. His school was locked down Dec. 14 with early reports that there might be a second shooter. Yet it wasn't my nephew's proximity that made this all too familiar for me. It was the faces of my colleagues. While much attention was paid to the heroic responses of the teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook, I was surprised how little attention was paid to the emotional aftermath for every elementary teacher or administrator.
Do you know an elementary teacher? They have a gift of such direct and compassionate focus that every single child in their classrooms believes that he or she is the center of that teacher's world (and they can do that 18 times over every day). They can hear and answer three different questions on three various topics all while bending down to tie a stray shoelace and supporting a tearful young friend.
They can show the patience of Job while waiting for a young mind to sound out the word "garage" for the first time. They spend eight hours a day nurturing young readers and mathematicians and another four hours cutting out the pieces for tomorrow's math center or planning for the Native American unit, which will require turning the classroom into a tee pee.
They went into teaching for the love of children and the exhilaration of learning. They didn't sign up to be a first responder, but Dec. 14 reminded them that it comes with the territory. While they practice the process of a lock down, the drill of a fire alarm and the life-saving steps of CPR, this tragedy made it all real. It put a gunman on every campus and forced teachers to physically and emotionally prepare for the unimaginable. As much as we parents turned to teachers and demanded their support of our fears for our children's safety, they deserved our understanding.
I appreciate that the lives of those 20 children were not lost in vain - that we are improving security at schools all over the country, that there is a call to bolster access to mental health care and support students on the fringe in our classrooms, that there is an open dialogue on gun violence. I hope the teachers' lives are also honored. I wish it didn't take such a tragedy to make us reconsider the importance of the teaching profession, but I hope that enters into the debate that ensues following this heartbreak.
We need to improve the status of this profession at the national and state level, but we can start at a personal level by offering our thanks to a teacher. We owe them gratitude, respect and so much more, for it is a teacher who daily saves your son or daughter in so many small ways and is prepared to make the greatest save when called upon.
- Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 4 and 8.