I’ve always had two stock answers for people whenever they ask me about Newtown. “It’s from the half of Connecticut that wants to be New York City.” The other: “We invented Scrabble. After that, nothing really happened.” It’s a town of about 27,000 people where things don’t stay open past 10 p.m. and a boy digging a big hole is a story worthy of the local paper’s front page. It’s also where I grew up and made my first friends and got my first job and learned about 80% of what I know today.
And now, none of that matters.
It’s just after midnight at the end of a long day of shaking, crying, worrying, and telling several concerned friends that I’m fine. It’s only true in the narrowest sense, of course. Yesterday, 20 children were shot and killed in my old elementary school. I’m sad, confused, infuriated, and I want to do something about it. The problem is, I can’t think of anything that would actually matter.
I think that’s where a lot of the confused anger and despair I’ve been trying to deal with over the past 24 hours stems from: sheer, overwhelming impotence. The town and school where I have innumerable positive memories have both been suddenly torn away from me in the most grotesque way possible. I say that without exaggeration: we’re talking about a gunman who opened fire in an elementary school. That can’t be a real event.
When talking to friends and family about this, the one phrase that keeps coming up is “I can’t believe.” It’s a cliché, but also true in a very literal sense. I spent all day reading the headlines and the body counts, but part of me is still waiting for the grand reveal that none of this really happened because how could any of it have really happened? How could the elementary school where I wrote my first story and got in trouble for calling Ross Perot a butthead also be the site of the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting? I can’t reconcile the memories I have of Sandy Hook School with the events of today. They simply aren’t the same place.
In other words, the feeling of helplessness isn’t just coming from the fact that I can’t do anything about the murders on Friday. If anything, I’m still far too baffled as to how and why a fellow human being could kill 27 people — 20 of them schoolchildren — to feel much of anything besides inchoate shock and rage. The helplessness comes more from the fact that my hometown doesn’t belong to me anymore.
Over the course of just a few hours on a crisp Friday in December, I saw my humble town become infamous. I saw its name plastered on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. I saw it trending on Twitter. I heard it come out of Barack Obama’s mouth. It belongs to the world now, not to me. And this is all and only because of the shooting.
I don’t know how you make sense of an event like this, where even words like “abominable” and “sickening” come off as understatement. I don’t know what type of person decides to kill 20 elementary school students. If Columbine is any indication, the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary will likely be the main if not the only thing that people think of when they hear the word “Newtown” for decades to come. This is eminently understandable, but I can’t help but feel angry about how unfair it seems as well. Because there is more to my hometown than one horrific shooting, and I want people to know that. I want them to know about the Labor Day Parade and the General Store sandwiches, about Newtown High School soccer and the $2 movies at Edmond Town Hall, about how we put a giant flagpole in the middle of a busy four-way intersection that everyone seems to both love and hate at the same time. I want them to know that St. Rose of Lima isn’t just a place for candlelight vigils but for weddings and baptisms, and I want the Times to know that the adjectives “wooded” and “bucolic” don’t begin to do my town justice, and I want to chastise my adolescent self for devoting so much of his existence to complaining about a place that never showed him anything but family and friendship and love, and, damn it, President Obama, that really was a moving speech, but it’s Newtown.
I don’t know if anything positive will come out of this, but we didn’t seem to learn much from Columbine or Virginia Tech or Gabrielle Giffords or Aurora or Oak Creek, so I’m skeptical. I don’t know if this is the type of event that a town ever really recovers from, and I don’t know if Newtown will ever be anything to the outside world except for the place where a gunman shot 26 people in an elementary school.
But I do know that, next weekend, I’ll be going back to Newtown not because it’s the backdrop of our latest national tragedy but because it’s the holiday season, and Newtown is my home. It will be a more somber trip than usual, but I’ll hug my parents and see my friends and reminisce about all the good times I had growing up. There’s still no place I’d rather be.