I'm From Newtown
The site of the most horrible tragedy imaginable is my hometown. This is how that feels.
My hometown has never been an easy place to describe when people ask me where I'm from. "It's next to Danbury" will suffice for those with knowledge of the small, second-tier suburbs of New England. A fellow Connecticut local might be aware of the one-dollar movies at the vintage theater in Edmond town hall, currently being used as a staging area for some of out-of-town law enforcement. The name is commonly mistaken as "Newton"; we generally give people a free pass on that one.
A fun fact to drop on outsiders: Bruce Jenner went to high school here for a couple years, and they named the football field after him. Pre-Kardashians. We also like to brag that we have not one, but two town parks — Dickenson and Treadwell. The latter is a campsite for national media this weekend.
Others may know Newtown for the flagpole that sits in the middle of Main Street — literally, right in in the middle of the the two-lane, 25-mph road, famously making this one of the most dangerous intersections in Connecticut. The flagpole is a landmark I first saw as my parents, my three sisters, and I were going to look at the house on Grand Place we would live in for 15 years. Most of world saw this spot for the first time on Friday when the flag was lowered to half-staff. It did not seem dangerous.
I moved to Newtown in sixth grade. I attended middle school and high school there. Before I started at BuzzFeed, I worked at My Place Pizza, a Newtown staple, from the age of 15 through 22. On a typical Friday, by far the busiest night of the week, we made 300 to 400 pies. I can't help wonder how many pizzas My Place made this past Friday night.
I was there on Sept. 11, 2001, and making pizzas proved to be an effective way to take my mind off what was happening 50 miles away. On Friday morning, working at a job that requires me to stare at Twitter all day, I didn't have the luxury of work as an escape, of distracting me from that 50-mile divide. I heard the news of the shooting at 9:30 a.m., and I didn't take my eyes off Twitter for the next 10 hours as things played out in a strange and confusing way. By noon, I had to turn off my phone. I simply posted on Facebook: "Thank you for all your texts, emails, tweets, gchats. No one from my family is in Newtown at this time. Everyone is okay."
My mom worked in special education in Newtown public schools for 10 of those 15 years that we lived there, and Sandy Hook Elementary was the first school she worked in. Today, she described to me the lockdown drills they used to do as practice; what seems to us as unthinkable had, in fact, been very much thought about. She says the staff of the school made those drills purposely jarring, banging pots in the hallways and rapping on classroom doors, so as to prepare everyone for noise and chaos. Still, the thought that those procedures would be put into practice never fully felt possible.
I didn't get to speak to my mom until Saturday morning. She sent me a note on Facebook to let me know that she saw my high school friend's mom, a teacher at the school, on television, running across the parking lot. She wanted me to know that she was safe.
My parents moved to Belmar, New Jersey, last year after purchasing a bed and breakfast. They were fortunate not to be tragically affected by Hurricane Sandy, and the Inn, my family's new home, is miraculously intact. This is where my mom was on Friday when she found out the news. She has been communicating with friends in Newtown by text; it was too hard to talk on the phone without breaking down.
By Saturday, names of the dead started to show up in my mom's Facebook feed. News like Friday's massacre doesn't fully go through you unless you can picture it the way she can, I think, placing the names with the faces, with the building. She told me one name of a teacher who she believes is dead and has kids about the same age as my sisters and me. For now, I'm staying away from Facebook.
In the days to come, different storylines will be drawn that will do little more than incite anger. These narratives will revolve around confusing and half-explained motives, and gun control, and media practices. Before lashing out, I urge everyone to think about the scene at the Sandy Hook firehouse yesterday, a quarter-mile away from the school, where parents were sent to retrieve their kids. After the last group of students were picked up, the parents who were left waiting were told that their kids didn't make it out.
I think about that scene, and I realize that there is no reason for me to feel anything but sadness and sorrow and mourning for those affected by this tragedy.
I'll never again have to describe where I'm from. No one will pronounce the name wrong. Instead: Did you know anybody? No amount of candlelight vigils or even gun-control bills will fully heal the scar, but there will hopefully be proud moments in the coming days; maybe I'll look out from the BuzzFeed office and see the Empire State Building lit up in blue and gold, the colors of Newtown High School, which always seemed to be a source of community pride. This strong community that didn't deserve to be weakened by such a senseless act. The town I'm from.
I ran into a friend from high school in New York on Thursday. We chatted for a few minutes, and he asked me if I was going back to Newtown for Christmas. I told him my parents moved and I didn't really get up there much. Then we reminisced about the Metro-North train ride from Manhattan, and how the sky always looks so dark when you get there. I don't know when exactly I'll go back. I want to go right now, but with my family gone, I don't know what's appropriate. There are no right answers.