Taking the Time to be Thankful Amid Tragedy

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By Marla Hoffman

Erika stole my pencil in second grade. It was 22 years ago and I barely remember what I learned that year, but I remember that Erica, who sat next to me, stole my pencil one day. It’s one of the most obscure memories I have. At some point around that year Erica moved away, and several years later so did I.

It was only recently that I realized why my mind filed that particular memory. Years after the pencil incident, in the middle of seventh grade, my family moved across the river to a town called Shelton in the Fairfield County Connecticut suburbs. Upon the first few days in my new school I discovered the pencil thief and I were once again in each other’s midsts. We weren’t in the same classes, but we took the same bus. Remembering each other, we became friendly and sometimes sat next to each other.

That was a rough year for me; a couple girls targeted me and I was bullied for months. At some point I learned that Erica was known as a “tough” girl … none of the other girls dared cross her. So one day, after picking spit balls out of my hair and dreading the prank and hang-up phone calls I’d likely get when I arrived home, I approached Erika on the bus. I told her what I was going through and asked if she could talk to the “mean” girls for me. She did, and I can honestly say that things got better after that.

Erika’s gesture of friendship has sat with me. I’ve never really talked about it because it brings back the painful memories of being the butt of my classmate’s jokes and being teased for my clothing and how I looked. Today, Erika is a friend of mine on Facebook, and I have never told her what her actions meant to me. I think about how she was my hero that day. It was such a small thing – telling a group of mean girls to back off – but it made a huge impact on my life and the truth is she probably doesn’t even remember.

I’m learning that the people and moments that often make the biggest impression on our lives are the ones that are most unexpected. Often they leave as quickly as they arrived.

The massacre in Newtown, CT, last Friday happened quickly. Within minutes, 20 children and 6 educators were gunned down and killed.

For the surviving students, teachers and staff, those few moments may very well define the rest of their lives. The young children whose teachers huddled them in corners and closets and under desks and cubbies will undoubtedly never forget the moment when their teacher told them everything was going to be okay and that they were loved. Those surviving children will never forget their teacher’s name. Like-wise, I can’t imagine those teachers will ever forget those particular students.

Newtown is just two towns away from where I grew up. We have family friends that live there and went to Sandy Hook Elementary. Mnsgr. Robert Weiss was my parish priest growing up is now the pastor at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown – he has the difficult and emotional task of performing many of the victims’ funerals this week as well as ministering to the families. 

As an adult, I worked as a reporter covering Monroe, the town right next door to Newtown. The Sandy Hook students will now use Chalk Hill School in Monroe – a building I visited dozens of times, covering school events. Before taking my current position here in Calais, ME, I interviewed for a job with Patch.com, covering Newtown. As fate would have it, I ended up moving three states away instead.

As Friday’s events unfolded, my mind was racing. If I had taken that job I would be on scene right now covering this horrific tragedy. And as the news came in that 20 children were murdered, I don’t know if I would have been able to hold it together.

I couldn’t help but think, what if the shooter walked into one of Monroe’s schools where I know so many students? What if he decided to drive to Nichols School in neighboring Stratford where my 5-year-old cousin is a Kindergartener? What if in a few years someone else decides to go on a rampage and shoot up the school where my nieces will attend?

My mind was racing right along with the rest of the nation’s Friday, with impossible “what if’s” and “why’s.” Tragedies such as the one that happened in my home state we may never understand. We ask more and more questions, which will lead to more questions.

But in the meantime, the grieving families of the victims of this unconscionable act are remembering the women and children as they lived. And we should take a cue from them.

Their lives were undeniably shifted because of what transpired in those terrifying moments and hours during and following the attack on the school.

If you are a parent, say thank you to your child’s teacher and the staff that protects them day in and day out. If you are a student reading this, you, too, should thank your teachers. Because all it takes is just a few moments, just a single gesture of humanity to change your life.

Next time you are out and about and you see a firefighter, a member of the EMS or a police officer, thank them, too. If someone holds the door open for you at the post office and you’ve been having just the worst day, take a moment to appreciate the kindness – and say thank you.

To Erika, I send thanks to you every time I see you post online a new cute picture of your newborn baby – even though I never did get my pencil back. To my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Dorey, I send thanks to you every time I open a book, because reading with you was just the most fun a 5 year old could have. To my big brother Ken, thank you for pushing me to be better and for taking the time out of your busy teen life to be a great role model. To my dad, thank you for holding it together – even when my teen self was just too busy. To my mom, thank you for being the beautiful strength that protected, guided and nurtured my life.

I think we all could send out a little more thanks to our heroes.

If you want to donate to the My Sandy Hook Family Fund, visit: www.everribbon.com/ribbon/view/10076.

If you want to donate to the University of Connecticut scholarship set up especially for Sandy Hook, visit: www.foundation.uconn.edu/press-release-2012-12-sandy-hook.html. Funds will be available for siblings and dependents of those who died.