Earlier this week, New York Magazine writer Dan Amira wrote a post that posed the question, “What’s So Bad About Having the Newtown Kids Sing ‘Call Me Maybe’ at the Grammys?” If you’re like me (or the people who sent tweets about the decision that dripped with disdain) and dislike anything that’s overly saccharine, a lot is bad about it. I’m the kind of person who felt that having students from the Sandy Hook Elementary School choir perform at the Super Bowl was an unnecessary, though unsurprising development; the most cynical part of me felt that it was something trapped between a false gesture from a country that is bound to move on and forget and a publicity stunt for an organization that’s struggling to convince parents that football is actually safe for their children.
According to The Associated Press, the director of the group, Sabrina Post, explained that the idea came from the kids themselves, who “wanted to do something with their talent to honor their friends and neighbors who died in the Dec. 14 massacre at the school, and help the community heal.” Tim Hayes, who produced the Sandy Hook Elementary students’ rendition of “Over the Rainbow”, added that they won’t be doing any more big performances like this. “We know the kids involved have had a wonderful experience, but we think this chapter is now done,” he said. “We want these kids to get back to being kids.”
Describing his first reaction to the thought of having the Newtown kids at the Grammys as being “pure ratings-driven exploitation,” Amira wrote that he ultimately felt good about the kids being able to have this opportunity. “Chances are, they’re thrilled about singing a dumb pop song on national TV for the entire country. Half these kids probably have Carly Rae Jepsen lunch boxes or iPhone cases or whatever crap kids buy these days. Most important, it’s something to work toward, to be excited about, to focus on, instead of the traumatic, haunting incident that tore apart their lives. Why begrudge them that distraction?”
In 2001, my younger sister Emma and I were in fourth and eighth grades, respectively, and going to school downtown by the World Trade Center on 9/11. Our schools were so close to the attacks that we were evacuated and couldn’t return for months because they were using the buildings as a staging area for the recovery effort.
In the meantime, our schools were inundated with gifts, which included 10,000 paper cranes sent from children in Japan, loads of letters and stuffed animals, and tickets to The Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. Emma and her classmates were featured on an episode of Reading Rainbow devoted to explaining tragedy and hope to children. “It takes a long time to recover from something so terrible, but as you can see, people are working hard to put their neighborhood, and lives, back together,” said LeVar Burton during the episode. “They’re focusing on the future.”
The only thing I remember specifically about that “outpouring of support” was attending a special meet-and-greet with the cast of Beauty and the Beast after the performance. In the delightful way eighth-graders do, our class endlessly bugged the man who played Gaston — actor Christopher Sieber — about his time on Two of a Kind, the television show starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. He was not pleased.
“I think mainly the superfluousness of it all was what is the biggest problem,” Emma said when I asked her what she remembers about the outpouring of love from strangers during this period. “At the same time, I do remember feeling loved and thought of, and I do remember it well, and it was always a nice distraction. But it was perplexing at the time.” According to the Reading Rainbow video, she was mainly concerned with feeling safe again once she got back to her classroom.
What I remember from that time was crying when I found out I wouldn’t be able to go back to our school for months, and that I’d have to spend half of 8th grade sharing a building with another middle school. I remember breaking down when I found out all our food was spoiled when my family was able to return to our house because the power had been shut off after the Towers went down. I remember so badly wanting things to go back to the way they had been before.
I didn’t feel better when we went to war or when we finally caught Osama bin Laden. I probably don’t even really feel better about it now; like the loss of anything, all grief finds a way to work itself into the fabric of your life until normal life looks a lot different than it used to. The only difference is that you’re now used to it.
If the kids of Newtown are excited about singing about the Grammys and liked singing at the Super Bowl, that’s an amazing experience that we can’t (and shouldn’t) take away from them. If it makes them feel even a little bit better in the moment, that’s even more fantastic. But the best thing for them, whether it’s sexy or moving or impressive to the greater public, is to make life the most normal that it can be. And that doesn’t include singing a pop song for millions of people around the world.
One of the hardest things about grief is how isolating it feels. We won’t understand what has happened to them; our lives will move on and we’ll forget; and the issue won’t be about Newtown anymore, it’ll be about (and already is about) the greater issue of gun control. It makes the country feel better to honor events in dramatic and public settings, but it doesn’t really do much beyond that. It’s tempting for us to turn a tragedy into something positive. Perhaps it wouldn’t be socially appropriate to do anything else.
But I’m curious to hear what these children — whose lives have been shaped by this event, whether they realize to what degree that’s true yet — will remember when they’re my age. Will they be happy they performed at the Super Bowl or the Grammys? Or will they still remember that as a weird time when all they wanted was to feel safe?