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At this time of year, social media becomes a magical, mood-lifting loop of first-day-of-school pictures filled with painstakingly selected outfits and excited smiles that remind parents how quickly their children are growing before their eyes. We try to outsmart time, capturing the once-a-year moments that make them still feel like our “babies” — because, of course, that’s how they will always remain in our hearts.
Last year, for the first time ever, I didn’t take a picture on the first day of school. Although it pained me to know I would never have a photo of my son Jake’s first day in fourth grade, consciously recording that moment would have been even more painful — because for once, I couldn’t outsmart time. Where two beautiful little boys had once posed, now there would be only one.
Only one, because eight months earlier, on December 14, 2012, my younger son Dylan was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, along with 19 classmates and six brave educators. And the first day of school in our house would never be the same.
Since our tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut — and the far-too-frequent school shootings since — many parents have told me that their feelings about the return to school have changed. What used to be a familiar mix of sadness and relief — sadness that another sweet summer is behind us, and relief that our houses will soon revert to the routines of school — now includes an unwelcome sense of fear.
When statistics indicate there will likely be a gun-related incident on a campus in the next few weeks — watchful school personnel already prevented one planned mass shooting at South Pasadena High School — the anxiety some parents feel about returning to school is completely understandable. Last year, there were 50 gun-related incidences on school campuses across the country. That averages out to more than one a week during the school year.
Since Dylan’s death, summer has come to seem less like a time for daydreaming and playing and more like a mental vacation from news of another school shooting, another gun-related campus suicide, another child accidentally discharging a weapon brought to school to show friends. But even though school shootings themselves might stop with summer vacation, other forms of gun violence persist, devastating families and leaving schools to begin a new year traumatized by loss.
So, how do we do it? How, knowing the statistics and fearing the unthinkable, do we find the strength to return our children to school? For me — and for many parents I’ve met during the past 20 months — it’s because we are able to place them in the hands of capable, caring professionals who look after their minds and guard their safety.
Dylan’s older brother Jake survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and I can tell you that putting him back in school after Dylan’s death was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. I was only able to do it because I knew with every fiber of my being that the people with whom I entrusted Jake’s safety at school would protect him, quite literally, with their lives if necessary.
Despite what we read in comics and see in the movies, the true heroes in our lives are not the mythical ones who swoop in and save the day. They’re our schools’ personnel — the teachers and administrators, school bus drivers, and janitors — who embrace our children as their own the minute they step into school. These real-life heroes do their best, every day, to ensure our children come home to us healthy, a little wiser, and well loved.
I was lucky enough to know a hero like this: Dylan’s special-education assistant, Anne Marie Murphy, with whom he had a very strong, warm bond. Mrs. Murphy’s picture hung on our refrigerator door because Dylan adored her and felt safe with her. Forging that kind of connection was no easy task for a child with autism, but Mrs. Murphy gave Dylan the courage and confidence to be his sweet self.
On the day of the shooting, my beautiful boy Dylan died in Mrs. Murphy’s arms; She, too, died trying to protect him. In the terrible days following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, knowing that his final moments were spent wrapped in the loving embrace of an absolutely extraordinary teacher, hero, and mother gave me a small measure of comfort.
Of course, Mrs. Murphy wasn’t the only hero at Sandy Hook Elementary that day. Five other selfless educators were taken from us, while others survived and ensured their students did, too. Still others braved the return to school after the shooting, finding ways to cope with their own trauma and loss while helping our children find their way out of the nightmare they had endured. Jake's third-grade teacher, Mrs. Connie Sullivan, not only kept my son safe during the barrage of 154 shots, but comforted him in the days and months afterward. For quite some time, Mrs. Sullivan was the only person, besides my husband and me, with whom Jake felt comfortable.
These courageous, committed people who watch over our children every day are the real heroes — not just for my family, but for families around the world.
Before that dark December day, my child’s fears were largely imaginary (monsters under the bed, shadows in the closet) and easily banished (lullabies, night lights). But many parents don’t know — or think they need to know — how to protect their children from the very real threat of gun violence. Before I lost my 6-year-old son and his precious smile, I certainly didn’t. Now I know that until we do something to end gun violence in our communities, more innocent children will be taken from us.
I joined Sandy Hook Promise, an organization founded in my town by community members and parents like me in the days after the shooting, to protect my surviving son Jake and all children from the very real dangers I now know exist. We work to eliminate gun violence by addressing issues of mental wellness, community connectedness, and gun safety. We do this knowing that the only way we can protect all our children is by inspiring people to action and changing our communities from the ground up.
That’s why we need you to join us in this effort. Even if you’ve felt like the issue of gun violence is too big, too terrifying, for you to make a difference. Even if until now it’s been easier to focus on making the school bus, shuttling kids to activities, and helping with homework — all the while hoping the next news story isn’t about your town.
The truth is, the change we wish to see begins with us — and we must all do something to protect our children and the children we love.
So as your children head back to school and you snap that first-day-of-school photo, cherish the moment, and then visit sandyhookpromise.org/heroes. Join me in signing a card thanking our school heroes and promising to work together all year to keep our children safe.
Together we can create a wave of love and support for all our teachers and principals, janitors and bus drivers, nurses and administrators — the incredible heroes who protect our kids every day from the real threats in life, not just the imaginary ones. Together we can continue to watch our beautiful children grow — through smiling photos, special memories, and heroic, wholehearted love.
Nicole Hockley is the Communications Director for Sandy Hook Promise.