An American Girl in Washington

All The Small Things

Posted in Uncategorized by AGinDC on 16 December 2012

I know I’m not supposed to be drinking alcohol this month but today I had to break into my favorite wine. it’s vegan, so I wasn’t technically breaking any rules. I’ve been under a dark cloud and I haven’t been able to figure out why. I didn’t figure it out until I was trying to keep it together at a Christmas party that didn’t meet expectations (nothing ever does. Probably my fault for keeping expectations so high). I glanced at a television and CNN was on, talking about the 27-year-old teacher who died protecting her first graders in Newtown. And then I realized. I don’t usually get emotional about national tragedies. I’m extremely cynical and pretty stoic most of the time and I hate it when people get worked up over things that have nothing to do with them. It seems self-indulgent and desperate, a selfish cry for attention at exactly the wrong moment.

But for some reason this really affected me. And then I realized, I’d spent the last 36 hours imagining that that was my old first grade classroom. Without knowing it, I’d recreated the room in my head and had worked out every scenario for how I would have protected my students. How I would have barricaded the door, where I would have hidden the children, how I might have gotten them out of the tiny cracks in the window. I’ve imagined what I would have said to them, what story I would have read, what might have been going through their heads. And I watched every one of them die, over and over again. I even dreamt about it. I was only 21 when I started teaching, I didn’t know what I was doing and I wouldn’t have had any idea what to do in that situation. Subconsciously, the tragedy at Sandy Hook took me back there and I sank into a depression without even realizing it. Here I am, crying again as I type. This is ridiculous.

Columbine happened when I was in high school. I was a sophomore or junior, I don’t remember which. But I do remember when it happened. It hit so close to home. I went to a white, upper-middle class high school in the suburbs of a very wealthy state. The school treated those of us in sports, in the arts, in Leadership (Yes, we had a class called “Leadership”. We planned dances and pep rallies.) like demi-gods. We could be late to any class, go where we wanted. Got balloons delivered to celebrate game day, opening night, a choir concert. Everyone either had money or pretended to. We all wore khakis and Doc Martens (It was the Pacific Northwest. In the 90’s.). As one of the very, very few black students in a very large school, I knew what it was like to be marginalized, but I made up for it by being overly-involved, overly-intelligent, overly-eager to please. But I also saw all of the kids from the parts of town nobody noticed, who were ignored, teased, and forgotten. After Columbine, I realized that it would be shocking if there wasn’t a shooting at my school. We were so ripe for it. I wasn’t so worried about me, I knew I was leaving soon (I must have been a junior) and I guess I felt as invincible as most 16-year-olds. But my brother was starting high school the next year, and I was terrified that he might fall victim to a massacre.

I knew I had to do something to keep him safe and the only thing I could think of was to make use of a school tradition, the Prides of March. We always spent March celebrating the pillars of the school, arts, academics, athletics, probably something else that starts with an “A”. Now that I’m older, I get the irony of celebrating the supposed great achievements of our school on such an infamous occasion but back then I guess we thought it was cool. Or something. I knew the month would be spent celebrating the same 40 kids in our school of over 2,000, the kids who were worshipped and whose letter jackets were already overflowing (mine even had custom-made images on it, a luxury that my single mother couldn’t afford but had made happen so I wouldn’t be left out). I thought that maybe, if I could do something to recognize everyone else, maybe I could prevent a shooting for at least a couple of years.

I told my teacher that I wanted to recognize all 2,000 students in the school for something they were good at. He laughed and said I could use the resources but that I didn’t realize how hard that would be. He told me not to be disappointed when I gave up halfway through the month.

I couldn’t recruit any volunteers except my best friend, Rachel. I was 25 before I realized what a good friend she’d been. We got a list of every student and set out trying to find a way to send balloons and a note to every one of them before the month was out. We drew a giant ram’s head (guess what our school mascot was) on the lunchroom wall and decided to post the name of each student as we recognized them. We started with the easy ones. Every sport, choir, theatre, our friends. Then we asked around and got a few more. Every day we wrote notes and names and blew up balloons and sent them around the school. The first 1,000 weren’t so hard. But then we had two weeks left and half the school to go. The half no one knew.

We sent letters to the teachers. Here is a list of your students, can you tell us something that each one is good at? Slowly, the notes came back. “Ryan is a beautiful artist”. “Mike is great at skateboarding”. “Jillian is a real leader in JROTC”. We started delivering balloons and notes to kids who had never received one before. We added their names to the wall. And finally, after a mad rush on March 29th, we finished. Every single student in the school had been recognized.

I never knew if this made a difference. I doubt it. It was a small thing, like spitting into a hurricane. But in a moment so huge, when everything seemed so out of control and I felt like I had to do something, anything, just to keep my brother safe, this was the most I could do.

Much of the anger and pain after Sandy Hook stems from the frustration that no matter how much we might want to hug a parent, comfort a child, or change the gun laws in America, we can’t. We can’t all storm down to Newtown offering free hugs and hot cocoa. We can’t bring back a little girl who is gone too soon. And we certainly can’t convince our nation’s leaders that maybe now, finally, we should do something about guns and mental health in America. All we can do is watch, and wait, and cry. And maybe, like the Prides of March, we can find the little things that just might make a difference.


One Response

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  1. EvolvingElle said, on 17 December 2012 at 5:14 pm

    This was a BEAUTIFUL post! And I’m sure your classmates thanked you for what you did, even if it was a few years later. 🙂

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