Newtown Plus 5 Part Two
In the days that followed it would be reported that all together twenty young children, all first graders aged six years old were brutally murdered that day. Six adults, including the school Principal, the School Psychologist, a Special Education Aid, and three teachers were also killed as they protected the children. The shooter took his own life when he heard the police approaching.
The senseless nature of it all, the killing of innocent children, and their protectors by a local resident was just too hard to process. As educators, my wife and I were dumbstruck, how could this happen? Why did it happen? Who could do such a thing? What can we do? My wife Coletta, a school counselor said, “Since it’s Christmas, why don’t we get a wreath, and get some Serenity Angels to go with it. We can send it to Newtown to express our sympathy, let the townspeople know we are thinking of them." I thought it was a wonderful idea.
So we headed to Macy’s and found a huge three-foot wreath, and twenty tiny gold-framed red glass angels, and six large ones, and she took it to her elementary school where they tied all 26 on the wreath with green and white ribbons, Sandy Hook School’s colors. I wrote a note along the lines of , “The staff here at Ridgely Elementary School sends this wreath to show our sympathy and support in your time of grief, in solidarity from our school to yours.” All the staff signed it, and I fashioned a cardboard box to fit it comfortably and safely and taped it all up ready to go. But to go where? The Sandy Hook School was a crime scene. To send it to the Town of Newtown might find it lying in a snow bank somewhere on a side street. Then I recalled conversation about the town’s General Store, a gift shop, and pastry shop with coffee and soft drinks and newspapers and candy and ice cream for the kids and delicatessen for sandwiches and crisp pickles. I Googled the address of the Newtown General Store, and addressed the package dropping it off at the local post office.
On the last day before winter break, my wife received a phone call from Peter Leone, the proprieter of the General Store. He told my wife the wreath was just beautiful . He told her that Bryan Williams from NBC News was there when it arrived and asked that Peter not open it until a camera crew could arrive. Things were chaotic, with three funerals for dead children in the churches across the street and moving vans clearing out every desk, chair, bulliten board, and scrap of paper to be moved to a middle school in town that had been closed and now reconfigured to be the new temporary Sandy Hook School when classes resumed in January. The surviving children needed a return to normalcy, even though the new normal was unlike anything anyone in Newtown could ever have imagined.
The wreath hung in the General Store over the holidays, and one day a teacher from the school stopped in. Noticing the wreath prominently displayed in the store, she asked what Peter planned to do with the wreath at the end of the season. Could she have it to display at the school. He took the wreath down and handed it to her.
Coletta and I had a wedding in eastern Connecticut that spring, and we called and made arrangements to visit Newtown. We spend several hours talking with Peter Leone, a connection that left us with the feeling we had been friends for years. He shared first person accounts of what happened that day and the days that followed.
We spent a few hours at the Town Hall where we met with the HR Director for the town Carole Ross who was in charge of organizing all the gifts that poured in; stuffed animals, paintings, quilts, ceramics. Some addressed to Sandy Hook, others to Newtown, while others with the names of the deceased children and staff. Those items were stacked in locked cages in the basement with the name of the child or adult, large stacks of boxes, and portraits and blankets, and quilts.
With the promise not to publish any of the photos, we were allowed to see many of the items and photograph them. “Though some of the gifts have been given to the impacted families, these are gifts that they are not yet ready to accept, it being too soon. You are seeing things they have yet to see.” I asked Carole what could I do, how could I help? “We need a book about the town, not the tragedy, but how the town is dealing with it in the aftermath.” I went home, and wrote “Newtown’s Trees” in one night.