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Sandy Hook and a test of faith

by Marcus Dowd

I cried twice this weekend. The second time was at the memorial service for a woman whose kindness was limitless. She helped start the program I now chair at our church and, as I sat down for the service, I was out of sorts and unfocused, thinking about where I had to be next. Then her children spoke. I cried so hard, I was afraid I might cause a disturbance.

The first time I cried was the day before at a Bat Mitzvah in Los Angeles for the daughter of an old college friend. As  my friend addressed his daughter, he started to break down, and I broke right down with him. My wife and I have a 13-year-old daughter of our own. I’m not sure what crying has to do with faith, but I do know I felt better after each service than before I went in. Call it catharsis. Call it process. All I know is I was a mess each time.

And all that crying made me remember the last time I cried.

My polyglot sister has always been good with languages—her job as a Latin teacher has afforded her great opportunities. Schools have sought her out to start and build programs. She left her most recent job last year but still, that morning, when I first heard the name “Sandy Hook,” I knew I needed to give her a call to make sure she was all right. I wasn’t worried about her as she hadn’t taught at the elementary school that was all over news channels, but she had been a high school teacher in the Sandy Hook district.

I was a little surprised at how quickly she called me back. Yes, she said, she had been a teacher at the high school and hadn’t taught any of the children who had lost their lives, though she knew some of the families. I was just starting to relax when she told me she had, instead, taught “the shooter.” 

Up to that point, like the rest of the nation, I was in shock thinking about so many children, and their protectors, none of whom I knew. Now I was worried about my sister. Alternately referring to the shooter as autistic and having Asperger’s, she spoke in a wavering voice about how she had to teach him, one on one, “in one of those trailers separate from the other classrooms,” for an entire year  before he could be allowed into her classroom where—though he was still disruptive the second year—he finally settled into being a good student the third year under her charge. 

If you ever meet my sister, please don’t tell her that I said she was speaking in a wavering voice, she’d deny it. She’s never wanted anyone to ask her how she was doing. She is always fine. My sister lives alone and her students have always been most important in her life. When people ask her how she’s doing, it’s almost like they’re insulting her. Besides, no one ever need ask about her devotion to her life’s work; all one has to do is take a look at the results. Former students are doctors and lawyers and NFL players.

And the devotion she showed to helping “the shooter” did not go unnoticed by his mother, who befriended my sister. When the shooter’s parents went through their divorce, the only thing they fought over was the Red Sox season tickets. And so it was that the shooter’s mother took my sister to Red Sox games; and my sister repaid the mother in kind, taking her to Broadway shows—something my sister and I were often lucky enough to do growing up in New Jersey.

Her living alone worried me. I wanted to make sure my sister had someone to talk to about all this. Obviously, it was a lot to take in. Never mind that she knew some of those families who lost children on that day. She knew the shooter. She had been friends with the mother. When the initial reports came out identifying the shooter’s older brother as the culprit, my sister said she screamed in her classroom, in front of her kids. She had taught him, too. She told me that the older brother could not have done such a thing, that he was a gentle human being. I could hear the confusion in her voice. “Why?” she asked. “How could anyone do this? How could she have those guns in the house? Why do those guns exist at all? What is wrong with us?”

My sister loves my children, her niece and nephew, but she’s had enough experience with kids and their parents to ask a haunting question. “Have your children ever done anything that kept you awake at night?” It caught me off guard. “Of course,” I answered. Then she asked how the shooter’s dad was ever going to get to sleep again. I told her I didn’t know. Again, I was crying.

All I wanted was to be able to answer her questions. My sister, who lives alone and needs protection. My sister, who has devoted her life to her students. My award-winning sister, who has had articles written about her and her outstanding works n the local papers. My sister, a guiding light, a mentor, a teacher to so many over the years. She has so many reasons to be proud and so many students she has shown love. But her brother can’t help worrying about her.

I hope that she is able to put aside this one troubled student and find compassion. She can’t forget him, of course, any more than she can forget about an entire town— one where she spent 10 years teaching Latin to its sons and daughters. Virtually all of them will go on, or have gone on, to the rest of their lives, better for having known her, as am I.

I just worry about her. And I try not to cry.

 

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