When I was in my early twenties, I worked at several daily newspapers, reporting on crime. Every day, I would make a round of calls to police stations and fire departments, asking if there was any news. And every day, there was news: traffic accidents, burglaries, fires, robberies, assaults, rapes, murders. Every day, the world was rife with crime, with danger. Gradually, I began to see the world in terms of danger, near misses. I could have been on that street when that shooting occurred, or I could have been driving on that overpass when that fatal accident occurred. Every day, I narrowly missed being robbed or murdered. It was just a matter of time. My life became a matter of dodging danger, of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I began to believe that somehow, proximity—distance in space, distance in time—could protect me.
In one high profile case, a ten-year-old boy was abducted, and later, he was found murdered. I couldn’t imagine his mother’s suffering. I remember telling myself: At least I don’t have kids. Having children, I realized then, was the worst way of exposing yourself to the world. My brother-in-law once told me that having a child was like watching your own heart walking around outside your body.
Now that I have children, I have multiplied my exposure to danger. As the news came out of Newtown on Friday, as the full magnitude of the event became clear, I counted the hours until my children would be home safe from school. The superintendent of my daughter’s school district issued an emergency communication promising “increased police presence” at the schools, which, we were assured, was “purely precautionary.” In one online news story, a Newtown resident was quoted as saying that he hoped his neighbor, a Sandy Hook teacher, was not among those who were shot. Like me, he hoped it was someone else, someone he didn’t know.
That evening, my brother-in-law called. “How far away is that school from you?” he asked. “It’s southwest of here, probably forty-five miles,” I told him. “Not that close.” He was asking about proximity. How close are you—in space, in time, in impact—to the horror?
Is it human nature to measure our proximity to events of great magnitude? People older than I often recall exactly where they were when they heard news of JFK’s death, men landing on the moon, Pearl Harbor. My generation has no shortage of momentous events: the Challenger disaster, the Berlin Wall coming down, Columbine, Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech, and, most memorable of all, 9/11.
On 9/11, I was working at a cemetery in Northern Virginia, a little over twenty miles from the Pentagon. My husband and three of my brothers-in-law were all working nearby in Northern Virginia or Washington, DC that morning. Although no one I knew was directly impacted, we did eventually bury one Pentagon victim at the cemetery where I worked. I watched his wife weep during the funeral. That was my proximity.
My students, college freshmen, remember 9/11 through the lens of childhood. On 9/11 they were about the age my daughter is now. Earlier this semester the subject of 9/11 came up in a class. How much were they told? I asked them. What did they know? One of my students said she was told nothing at all about it at school, but another said that her class watched the whole thing unfold on television. “We knew everything,” she told me. “From the very beginning. They didn’t keep anything from us. We were right there watching it all.”
What, if anything, should we tell our children about what happened in Newtown? Many parents here and across the country asked themselves that question over the weekend as they prepared to send their children back to school on Monday.
My own children didn’t yet know. They had been told nothing at school on Friday. We don’t have a television, so there was no chance of them hearing it on the news. I knew it would be best to tell my second grader, since she would likely hear about it somewhere, but I hadn’t figured out what to say. Then on Sunday morning, as she mixed waffle batter while listening to Christmas carols on the radio, the announcer mentioned “the children and the brave teachers we lost in Newton, Connecticut, on Friday.” My daughter looked at me and said, “What happened to the teachers?” I said, “I’ll tell you later.”
I read the articles about what to say to children: that we should give them the most basic information, that we should reassure them that they’re safe, that adults are here to protect them. And yet all of these things that I might say are not completely true. You are not safe. There are other shooters. You are never safe.
It was my husband who told our daughter that someone who had something wrong with his brain shot some people on Friday, that the shooter was gone, that her school was safe. He told her that if she wanted to talk about it, she should talk to her parents or her teacher or the social worker at her school. He asked her if she had any questions. She didn’t.
On Facebook I discovered that I know people who know people who lost a child. I can count my degrees of separation, measure my proximity. And I am just one person away. Just one person stands between me and the anguish of Newtown. An acquaintance knows one of the families. She changed her profile picture to one in which she is hugging a girl who is now dead. They are as close as can be, skin on skin. The dead girl’s mother has posted comments. I see her words on Facebook, and she is almost in a room with me, almost speaking to me. We are not that far apart.
Another Facebook friend who lives in my town and has two young children posted a quote from his daughter’s former kindergarten teacher: “No one’s perfect, but a five-year-old comes pretty darned close.” I think of my son, just shy of five, who doesn’t know about Sandy Hook. And I will not tell him, not now. Because he is still so close to perfection. Because he—and all of our children—deserve to live in a better world, and the only way I can give him even a piece of that world is by shielding him from the real world. In the world I make for him, first graders are not gunned down in their classrooms. In the world I make for him, he does not have to go to school in fear. In the world I make for him, he does not have to measure his proximity to tragedy. I do enough of that for the both of us.
On Monday, I got emails from my daughter’s teacher and school principal. With the crisis team standing by, all went well at school. It was “a routine day.” But that afternoon I made the mistake of turning on the Christmas carols again. During a break, the announcer said, “The first funerals were held today.” I hurried to turn off the radio, but my daughter had already heard.
“Is that related to that thing that happened with the person whose brain didn’t work properly?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I told her. “You’ll probably be hearing about it for awhile.”
“And then what? It will blow over?” Her tone was so flippant that at first I was appalled, but then I realized that she was merely mimicking the way adults talk. She has learned this from us.
“Well,” I finally said. “It won’t blow over for those who were directly affected.”
“Were we directly affected?”
“Well, no,” I told her, desperate to change the subject. “We don’t know anyone in that town.”
And I chose to say nothing more, to make no more of the matter, because being seven years old is not that far from perfect either. Because I can do enough thinking about children being shot for the both of us.
And then there is the proximity of time. Four days after the event, even as we keep burying children, already the headlines are suggesting a hint of normalcy. Already in our yearning to put pain behind us, we begin to turn away from tragedy. And I shield my children from it, fiercely, protecting them in their brief innocence, their perfection. Yet while I keep them out of proximity of fear and tragedy, I remind myself that what happened at Sandy Hook did not happen somewhere near here to someone I don’t know. It happened right here. It happened to all of us.