By SHERMAN FREDERICK
“Where sanity is there is God.” — D.H. Lawrence
A mentally impaired young man killed 20 children and six grown-ups at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. I don’t understand it. Unfair. Imperfect. Insane.
My first reaction was like that of most folks, I expect. I stared at my cellphone, trying to get my head around the fright of a 20-year-old gunman hunting children in a school. I could not stop imagining scenes of teachers bending low as they moved children like a covey of quail. I repeatedly wondered: Who shoots kindergartners?
Then, weirdly (or perhaps defensively), I began thinking about an obscure Associated Press story I studied in college. It was about the Aberfan coal disaster. The slag heap at Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, collapsed at 9:15 a.m., Oct. 21, 1966, sending 40,000 cubic meters of debris onto the classrooms at Pantglas Junior High School.
In less than five minutes, 116 children and 28 adults were buried.
The loss incalculable. The unfairness unbearable. For years, the community thought about that day, turning “what ifs” into poignant stories of good luck, bad luck and, sometimes, blame. Had only the slag heap collapsed a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been at school.
When the day of the funeral came, (and this is why we were studying the event) the AP reporter wrote what many consider one of the better opening paragraphs — journalists call them “leads” — of all time:
“They buried a generation today.”
They did the same in Newtown. To which the proper response for us all is to take a moment to hold our loved ones tight. Do it now.
Brave hearts. Flickers of sanity came in stories of bravery at Sandy Hook.
Consider Victoria Soto, a first-grade teacher.
Although two different versions of her bravery have emerged, both have the same ending: 27-year-old Ms. Soto sacrificed herself for her students.
The initial version had Ms. Soto hiding her children in closets and cabinets. When the gunman burst into her room, she shielded the hiding place, like a hen protecting a hidden nest.
A later version from one of her students had Ms. Soto moving her students to one side of the room when the gunman burst in. She positioned herself as a shield and died first, along with five in her class. But the rest scampered past the gunman to safety.
Similarly, special-needs teacher Anne Marie Murphy and special education aide Rachel D’Avino were found dead slumped over their students. They acted as shields, too.
Teacher Kaitlin Roig got her class into the bathroom and barricaded the door.
“I thought we were all going to die,” she said. If that was going to happen, she wanted the last thing her students to hear to be words of love. “I told the kids I love them and I was so happy they were my students.”
The evil passed them by.
We’re doing something very right to have instinctively brave teachers like these in one school. That can’t be a fluke.
Going forward, sadly, we are going to rehash the Second Amendment.
It would be more constructive to, for the first time, seriously explore mental health care and better understand why families facing such situations have to scratch and claw to get even basic care in America.
The common denominator of these tragedies is not the efficacy of the weapon of destruction, but the choice to destroy.
I’ll save further argument for 2013. It’s Christmastime. My family wishes yours all the best and we stand (while we can) with the president when he says: “In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God’s grace, that love will see you through.”
I believe that. Merry Christmas.
Sherman Frederick is former editor of the Hawaii Tribune-Herald and former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.