We got lost on the way to Sandy Hook Elementary School — or what once was the place where 26 people, including 20 children aged six and seven, and six adults were killed on December 14, 2012 in what has been called one of the deadliest mass shootings in our country’s ever-increasing catalog of such devastating episodes.
The shooting immediately and effectively reconstituted the gun control debate and has kept it on the front-burner since then, in spite of or because of the fact that the shock of such an unimaginable event has not managed to stave off the occurrence of mass shootings on other campuses, in movie theaters, in churches, military bases, and, most recently, in a dance club in Orlando, Fla. on June 12.
As participants in the summer Yale Writers’ Conference, my friend Susan and I had a day off between two intensive sessions of workshops, lectures, panels, and readings. When Susan, who lives near New Haven, asked me if I wanted to go for a drive to Westport for lunch, I saw my chance to ask her if we could make an additional stop. Susan knows the area well and has driven to and around Westport – famous for being the home of Paul Newman and where Joanne Woodward still resides – countless times. I seized the opportunity to impose on her. I agreed to the kind invitation to lunch and added that I also wanted to go to Newtown to see what was once Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Susan and I bonded on the very first day of the conference. Our surprising friendship is one of the many blessings I received from my time there. Without a moment’s hesitation, she agreed to drive me to this particular spot she hadn’t been to and had never considered visiting herself. Susan is also quite pragmatic, so while she immediately agreed to my unusual request, I knew she wondered about my rationale. Without waiting for the question, I offered the best answer I could.
The massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. had occurred only a few days before, and although our access to the media at the writers’ conference was limited due to our demanding daily schedules, we read items about the horrors of that attack from our cellphones, furtively scrolling through social media sites during lunch or short breaks to find out the details.
This abbreviated exposure to the news didn’t allow me to have a full picture of what had occurred in Orlando. My normal response to such tragedies is to stay glued to the television, feeling the odd fleeting moment of guilt for my morbid curiosity, being drawn in to the personal stories of the victims, and perplexed by the fanatical, political motivations or the mental illness – diagnosed or not — of the gunman. Mostly, I watch the wall-to-wall coverage to feel closer to the tragedy, to see the pictures of the victims on the screen, to hear their names and details of their lives shared by loved ones. I do this as if the tears I cry on my living room couch could make anyone feel better.
But even for all that information I might have about those poor people, the tragedies remain incomprehensible.
I told Susan that as a teacher, I was acutely affected by the events at Sandy Hook Elementary, that being a teacher was my life’s dream and that I could never have predicted the intrinsic danger and vulnerability I now assign to that role. I told her that being in Connecticut, I felt an irresistible pull to reach Sandy Hook, this place that captured the attention of the world for being so irrefutably heinous, to remember that cold, snowy Dec. 14 morning on a cloudless sunny June 14 afternoon four years later, and to be in the physical, and also the psychic space.
So I climbed into Susan’s vehicle, an SUV she navigated expertly out of the parking lot and away from the Yale University campus I’ve come to know as well as my own campus at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.
I wasn’t sure what I would think or feel when we reached Sandy Hook. Would I say the names of those victims aloud — the teachers and the children who perished in that odious nightmare? What kind of understanding could be gained from doing that? None. I knew that.
As soon as Susan plugged in the destination on Google Maps and I heard the familiar but monotonous voice coming from the phone saying the name “Sandy Hook,” with its robotic tone of detachment and distance, I started to believe that my rationale was off and that imposing myself in that sad world would remove me even further from comprehension.
My novel, the one I focused on during the writing conference, centers on the death of Elena, a young girl in the eponymous fictional border town of Pobrecito, Texas. The linked stories in my collection don’t focus quite so squarely on the murder, and it isn’t a thriller or a whodunit. The event converges with another inciting incident — the erection of a border wall infringing on the backyards and the lives of the Pobrecitos.
The protagonist is Elena’s teacher, Rita — the only character not from Pobrecito. As an outlier, she is mysterious and private, hiding her afflictions and addictions and the insuperable baggage from a sordid past. The death of Elena, a good student who showed amazing promise to break away from the small town to attend a good college, unmoors the teacher.
The book is about the way a place, a community, grieves together in the face of the most devastating of events — a senseless death, a life cut short. They are also mourning life as they once knew it, trying to survive the worst of it in the shadow of a border wall in their backyards, along the Rio Grande, the river that defines them. Rita and the Pobrecitos will have to find their way back to some kind of survival.
One of the books we parsed in workshop was Anne Tyler’s masterpiece, The Accidental Tourist. In this now classic work, Macon and Sarah cannot hold their marriage together in the face of the death of their son, a 12-year-old boy killed during a holdup at a fast-food joint. The book was first published in 1985, long before the tragedies of Oklahoma City, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando, and all of the other places forever infamously known became part of our collective consciousness.
Sitting in class that day, I marveled at the way Sybil Baker, my workshop professor, opened up my writing world, using the examples from Tyler’s novel. But I felt the room close in around me, felt my breath grow shallow and difficult, when I realized the convergences of these fictional worlds — Tyler’s and mine — and the all-too real world of Sandy Hook.
Tyler’s protagonist, Macon, a man obsessed with meticulous “systems” that only ostensibly make his life easier, leaves a job he dislikes to become a travel writer, except he hates to travel, and his writing shows his characteristic disdain for moving out of his comfort zones. On my own short journey to Newtown, if the views had not been so scenic, I might have felt just like Macon. Susan drove through amazing vistas of arbors and picturesque landscapes, deep woods and green fields
Instauration, the action of restoring or renewing something after decay, lapse or dilapidation, is a term that one conference guest speaker, John Crowley, described to us as an integral part of the trope of the hero’s journey. Although Crowley is acclaimed for his magnificent fantasy novels, I found much to learn from his talk, and particularly from the concept he made new for me. A protagonist of this kind of tale comes from her own world, descends into a kind of underworld or hell, and resurfaces again, changed.
I thought about the relevance of Professor Crowley’s lesson in my own story. My novel is based on a real event that occurred in Roma, Texas, and is far removed from fantasy or mythology. But this is a motif we see often and one that works and resonates. Fiction is about loss, although not in a way that is necessarily nihilistic. Moving through the loss brings change. The character changes in some way. Real life is about loss, too, of course. That’s why fiction — these made-up stories — tell the truths that make us keep reading, and writing. The idea of “instauration” is one I find to be a model of coming through a slaughter, coming back in some changed way from the worst form of hell.
I wish I could say that the experience of visiting Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut brought as dramatic a denouement. We were lost for a short time. Ours was a circuitous path as the GPS kept leading us to a different Sandy Hook school one or two towns over. We persevered, but when we finally arrived at the place, we realized there was no sign, nothing to indicate that this was the school, nothing to memorialize the victims. The fire department made its presence known there, with trucks standing tall in the small parking lot. A young man emerged from one of the trucks. “Is this Sandy Hook Elementary?” Susan asked him. He said that it was and that we were not allowed on the property.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” he said. His stony expression and stern tone reached me rather viscerally, and I can’t exactly say why. Being an outsider is a complicated negotiation in the most innocuous of situations. In this case, I was hoping to get out of the car, stand on that property, the playground. After that, I finally realized, there wasn’t any other way to feel except for how I’ve felt for all these years since the tragedy. Still sad. Still vulnerable.
I’ve thought for days about that abrupt exchange. I can only say that the young man was right. I wasn’t supposed to be there. As Macon in The Accidental Tourist wrote in his travelogue, “Getting there is difficult because the freeway is so blank, you start feeling all lost and sad. And once you’ve arrived, it’s worse.”
Susan and I were quiet driving back to campus. From my window, for miles, my view was the Connecticut River. It is the longest river in that part of our country and rises at the U.S. border with Quebec, Canada. The houses fronting this river, the piers and the boats, looked like something out of a magazine. I thought about how even old Macon might have found something beautiful about such a breathtakingly beautiful place.
I saw a woman working in her flower garden, a man walking a leash-less dog, children on swings. I thought about the Rio Grande in my own fictional world, the ways the characters prize their sense of place and peace in the world, demand it, deserve it. And that’s true for us all.
One house I saw along the river seemed to float on the water. What an act of faith it is to live sometimes, to go on. It is a prayer.
Top image: Main Street in Newtown, Ct. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ian Ligget.