No words, Old words

December 16, 2012

Dearest Readers,

I am officially committing myself to the local asylum, because this weekend has been so incredibly hard. Devastation of a nation on Friday, followed by a scheduled celebration of Miss D.’s birthday on Saturday. I am waiting for my Oscar to arrive. But what’s a mother to do? You plaster on that perk and put on some lipstick and make a happy day for your kid, dammit.

But I’m wrecked. We all are. I still can’t piece together words yet, so I’m offering you old ones. Old words that were made new again this weekend.

In the most fucked-up twist of fate ever, my friend Stephanie was on the recieving end of the frantic correspondence this time out. She’s a school administrator in Connecticut, and I spent a horrifying few hours trying to reach her, just like she had done years before on my behalf.

I love you, readers. I’m hunkering in the weeds right now. Too much to remember, too much to think about. Miss M. is 7…I can’t even go there. But will you sit in the weeds with me? I will bring the wine and the salty snacks. xoxo

 

***

I’ve only been at the school for two weeks when the first siren wails, blasting through the intercom system, making me jump out of my skin. All the other kids know what to do; they drop their pencils and books and line up with brisk efficiency. I sit in my seat, dumbstruck, until Mrs. Mitchell, suddenly all business, orders me out of my seat and into the line.

We walk quickly through hallways, covering our ears to muffle the blast, passing other lines of kids. I look for my sister but do not see her. Some lines go to the cafeteria; some go to the gymnasium. We are hustled into the library and hunker down, like human roly-polys.  Arms laced around our heads, we wait, inhaling the musty odor of old books.

I start to cry, biting my lip hard, hoping nobody hears.

“Psst…it’s okay,” a girl next to me whispers, peeking through her arms. “It’s just a tornado drill. We do this all the time.”

We didn’t have drills of any kind in North Dakota. Heck, the teachers sent us out to recess in 5-degree winters, bundled up like papooses.  The worst thing that could happen in North Dakota was to spend a week stranded and snowbound with your siblings. That was a hardship, since you’d be hissing at one another like cobras after a day or so, but it was nothing like this.

This was Kansas, and in Kansas, children prepare for tornadoes.  I think about this while I wait for the drill to end. Kansas. Of course. Just like in the Wizard of Oz. I close my eyes tight, willing away thoughts of flying cows and witches on brooms.

***

I unwrap my peanut butter sandwich, clad in my very professional skirt and blouse. The head of the English department smiles wryly across the table.

“Peanut butter? Seriously? How old are you, again?”

I good-naturedly flip her the bird. “Fuck off, Jules. Teacher’s salary.” I tilt my head towards the thin man to my left. “At least I don’t bring last night’s fish, like Bill.”

“Piss off,” Bill says, completely without menace. “My lunch doth reek, but at least someone cooks for me.”

“Well can you tell your wife to lay off the fish? For the greater good?”

Bill grins wickedly and shoves a forkful of fish into his mouth. “Mmmmmm. Tasty.”

“You’re a disgusting creature,” I say, biting into my sandwich. “You know that, right?”

The door to the English department office opens abruptly. A kid–not my student–pokes his head in, wild-eyed. “Some kid just got shot at Columbine,” he yells, and then shuts the door again. There’s a commotion in the hallways.

The news is awful, but it’s hard to wrap our heads around it. We figure it’s a scuffle in the parking lot. Or a spat over a girl. Maybe even a high-school rumor that, like most rumors, catches fire and spreads. What we do know is that the lunch break is over and we have more classes to teach. So we teach.

It isn’t until later that we learn the magnitude of what really happened. My friend Stephanie is the first to call. I’m in the shower, but I scramble for the phone, dripping.

The answering machine has already picked up.

“Shitshitshit. Dane, areyouthereareyouokayareyouthere? I just heard and is that where you teach? I can’t remember. I can’t remember where you teach and holy crap–”

I pick up the phone. I’m okay. Yes, the school is nearby. It has an almost identical social demographic as the school where I teach. Many of my students know kids who attend Columbine; they play together in soccer leagues, work side by side at Starbucks.

My father insists on taking me to dinner. We sit in a booth at Chili’s, eyes glued to the televison, fries and nachos growing cold.

“Your mom’s pretty freaked out,” Daddy says. He takes my hand. “You know, if you don’t want to do this any more…”

When I get home, there are two messages on my answering machine. I call my mother first.

“It’s not safe, what you’re doing,” she says. “I really don’t think I want you in public school. It’s a bad job, a dangerous job–look what those kids did–everyone in there was a sitting duck, and that could have been you. You’re no different.”

So many things rattle and ping in my brain.  It’s all white noise. I say, “Mom. Mama. It’s okay. Let’s just not talk about this right now, all right? I’m fine. Everything is going to be fine.”

The second message is an order from the school; teachers are to report at 6am tomorrow in the auditorium. No exceptions.

We report early in the morning and it’s eerily silent in the large auditorium. No wisecracks, no sarcastic banter. We sit quietly, but there’s an undercurrent of tension, a hyper-awareness of who we are and what it means to sit in these hard seats. We are puffy-eyed and pale-faced and restless, shifting back and forth, worrying cuticles, jiggling legs.

Even the football coach, a rhino-necked hulk of macheesmo, is grimly staring at his own feet, silent.

The administrative staff comes in and informs us of extra counseling services for students and grief management groups and where the blood donations and night vigils have been scheduled and it’s really all white noise again, a blur of faces and voices and rapid-fire information, delivered succinctly.

When the spiel is over, they ask if there are any questions.

A gangly Spanish teacher, red-eyed and clearly struggling with his composure stands up. “Um. I do have a question. And thanks for all of the information you just gave us, but what are we supposed to do today?”

His voice cracks a little. “The kids who show up in my classroom today; what do I do? What am I supposed to say…I just–”

There’s an uncomfortable pause and then the principal clears his throat and approaches the microphone. “I’ll take this one,” he says to the other administrative staff. He opens his mouth, then closes it again. He takes a deep breath and looks out at all of us, steely-eyed.

“What you do today is business as usual.”

A low murmur begins in the crowd and starts to grow. He holds his hand up, silencing.

“I mean it. Business as usual. I don’t want you talking about this, I don’t want you dwelling on this. I expect you to follow the lesson plans you have written down for today. Back to normalcy.”

We exchange glances between chairs and rows, incredulous. Bill takes off his glasses and runs a hand over his eyes.

“Fuck this shit,” a veteran teacher hisses behind me. “I’m putting in for early retirement. Stupid clown.”

“Blow it off, Andy,” another teacher says, under his breath. “Your kids are your kids. Do what you think is right and do what they need. That’s what we’re all going to do, you know?”

And he’s right, that voice in the back of the room. The kids who enter my room are mine. And I am theirs. And this is not a day for business.  This is a day to sit tight, on the floor, criss-cross-applesauce, next to each other and figure out how to help each other, because none of us have a blueprint or a compass for something like this. We’re deep in the weeds, but we’re in it together.

***

A week later, a loud drill blares from the intercom. As instructed, I can the lights, lock the door, secure the windows. The students and I retreat to a far corner, huddling together, gangly limbs and pimply faces and hairsprayed tendrils. We cover our ears and wait it out. But all I know is this: we aren’t in Kansas any more.

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

pamela December 16, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Wow Dana, I hadn’t read this before. Heartbreaking. That is all I can say. You write with such a raw and tender honesty about such a hard day. I am sorry that you were so close to this. I am sorry we are all going through this heartbreak now. No words.

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TKW December 16, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Pamela,

It brings it all back and I just want to kick something. Hard. xo

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Erica December 16, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I don’t have any words either. I would gladly sit in the weeds with you all day and night. I’m bringing fudge. xoxo

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TKW December 16, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Fudge? Can I have nuts in mine? xo

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Erica December 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Of course, I always put nuts in my fudge. Otherwise it’s just goo.

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Katybeth December 16, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Newtown has rocked me to my very core. Yes, we went through the weekend for our kids because of the families in Newtown who can’t do it for their kids and really, I can not think of a better way to honor them, than honoring your 11 years olds birthday.

I found this helpful. Susan is a friend. The links looks odd–it isn’t: Open Heart Project: http://mad.ly/b19c53?o=pm

Big hug. I wish it wasn’t virtual.

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Debbie December 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Right there with you, in the weeds.

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TKW December 16, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Are you bringing the whiskey? I’m thinking that wine is not strong enough…

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Sarah December 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm

I love you, duck.

Love, goose. xo.

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TKW December 16, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Goose,
Come visit soon.

Love,
Duck.

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Jane December 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Hugs to all the teachers out there. And to the parents. And to the children. Hugs to all of us. And to you, dear friend. xoxo

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elizabeth December 16, 2012 at 6:29 pm

It’s been a fucked-up few days, that’s for sure. But one of the few things that has been commendable in this whole mess is how selfless and fiercely protective those educators were in the most dire of circumstances.

Sending you hugs, naturally. And if I could, I’d send wine and the really good olive oil.

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jacquie December 16, 2012 at 6:54 pm

i’m right there with you in the weeds. frankly if someone isn’t “feeling” some outrage, angry, grief, betrayl or something right now i’m not sure i want to be associated w/ them. sorry i don’t have any whiskey – will dark rum do? and how about some brownie’s?

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Maria December 16, 2012 at 7:21 pm

The week had been shitty to begin with. Mom in the hospital. Tons of to do lists with nothing crossed off. Students who had been pushing the envelope the WHOLE week. I didn’t hear until the afternoon. I sat dumbfounded at the news website. My husband, who never answers the phone, answered on the first ring. “Are you okay? I’ll be home. I’m leaving in a few minutes.”

That night, as I watched Nightline, I sobbed. I wondered if my third grade students would fit in my classroom bathroom. I wondered if my sons teachers’ were envisioning their escape routes if something like this happened at our K-8 school. Could 1900 students really all fit in the bathroom, Kitch?

Someone’s already called the whiskey. I’ll bring tons of chocolate. We can be fat and drunk while someone makes sense of the world.

Hope your Mama is doing better. XOXO

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TKW December 16, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Maria,

You and I both had Mamas in the hospital this week? Are you okay?

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Maria December 16, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Kitch,
Mom’s meds were off, so she’s off the deep end, like she is this time of year, every year, for as long as I can remember. She has a small gallstone, swollen pancreas, and a shadow on an MRI in her digestive track. Doctors determined that the gallstone was not any concern, that the swollen pancreas was probably due to dehydration and she was released yesterday.

The chemo is kicking her ass, but not as much as her deep depression and dementia. As I sat with her a little on Friday night, she had that faraway look that people with dementia have. It’s been harder on my sister, who was up have the night, taking her to the ER and then going to work with just two hours sleep. She didn’t tell me until Friday morning. Unfortunately, this has become so common for us that we no longer freak out like we used to. How messed up is that? That you get used to getting phone calls and being in the hospital?

Hugs to you, dear friend. Know that I hold you and your dear mom in prayer…

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Maria December 16, 2012 at 8:27 pm

**half the night.

I seriously need to proofread.

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TKW December 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Awww, Crap. Maria, call me okay? I am just hurting for you and want to be there, to touch base. Suckitysuck. I think you have my phone # but if you don’t, let me know. I’d like to make you feel better or at least, be so obnoxious that you will laugh.

heather December 16, 2012 at 7:42 pm

yeah, my friend. I’m here. just gutted. or something.

love you!

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TKW December 16, 2012 at 7:43 pm

I love you, too.

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Jaimie December 16, 2012 at 7:57 pm

This is one of my all time favorite posts. You really capture what it feels like after one of these all-too-familiar-now shootings. I’m right there with ya in the weeds. Because humor is how I get through life, I find myself wandering around completely lost in situations like these, where there’s no way to process it in my usual way.

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Lisa @ The Meaning of Me December 16, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Yup. I’m in. This sucks.

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BigLittleWolf December 16, 2012 at 8:48 pm

When I have no words, I find words to express my silence and feel safer in it. Today, I couldn’t even do that, so I referred to far more eloquent words by a NYTimes columnist who says it better than I ever could.

There are no easy answers or one-dimensional “fixes,” but there are incremental improvements though they aren’t full-blown solutions.

It’s hard and also easy to withdraw, to weep, to throw up our arms and say “it’s too much” and feel very, very small and very, very powerless. But we aren’t a nation of powerless mothers (especially). Case in point – you put on the smile and do what you must for Miss D, just as we must all look for solutions beyond expressing our sorrow, our disgust, our despair.

Hugs to you, happy birthday to Miss D, and may we all find the strength to put our words to good use, and shape them into meaningful action the better to deal with the violence, and our issues of mental health.

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Annette December 16, 2012 at 9:14 pm

You’re a good mother, and you were very brave to go ahead with the birthday party. Our kids are rarely in the same places as we are emotionally, and I’m sure that’s just what she needed.

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Arnebya December 16, 2012 at 9:46 pm

I want to fight. I want to punch and kick and rail against something. Violence is not the answer to violence, I know, but damn that’s how I feel. Six and seven. Tiny. Babies still. Six and fucking seven.

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Alexandra December 16, 2012 at 11:52 pm

I didn’t know this about the story of your life. I didn’t know this was one of the chapters.

Can you send it in? It’s wonderful.

Can you send it in to HuffPost or somewhere where it will be seen, Dana?

It puts you where our teachers are, every day.

ANd what it takes to be there.

This was nothing short of riveting.

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TKW December 17, 2012 at 6:25 am

Alexandra,

Thank you! I have no idea how to even get on board with the Huffington Post–I am such a moron! I am baking/sending cookies to the teaching staff at the girls’ school this morning, but hopefully I will remember to figure it out later. You are so kind.

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Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri December 17, 2012 at 9:50 am

I remember these words the first time you posted them. Even after reading them again, they have a impact.

Sending you lots of love and hugs. Sending healing thoughts to Mama. xoxo

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Carol December 17, 2012 at 10:04 am

Oh! Words from far too close, my wet eyes open wide in horror – my heart breaking because of the horror. Horror that happens far too often now. Our world is tilting at a very dangerous angle. Both of my kids are teachers. My daughter’s kids are students. When did schools become a battlefield?

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TKW December 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Carol,

It’s horrifying, isn’t it? One of the safest places that your children should be…isn’t so much anymore. Hug your kids and thank them for what they do every day.

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Heather December 17, 2012 at 11:23 am

Thank you for re-sharing your story from Columbine. I was in middle school at the time and really didn’t comprehend what happened. I am just so shaken by what happened this time. The weeds sound like a good place to be right now.

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TKW December 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Heather,

I’m still hiding in there. Join me?

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Rosalie December 17, 2012 at 12:38 pm

My heart breaks for you. I hope you can come out of the weeds soon. Until then, I think the whiskey just might not be a bad idea.

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TKW December 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Rosalie,

It was hard to drop my girls off this morning…bring on the whiskey.

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Rosalie December 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm

I can’t even imagine how hard it had to be. I’m on my way, kiddo, whiskey in hand, and it looks like you’ve lots of us to huddle with there in the weeds. (Do wine and whiskey mix…?)

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denise December 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm

How ’bout this? I’LL bring the wine, and the salty snacks. Because, my friend, you are in need of someone caring for you. Ah, if only I lived next door…

Much love to you.

This post, which I’d never read before, is remarkable on so many levels. Your writing is so vivid that I felt very much like I was there, feeling the tension, hearing the whispered opining of your fellow teachers.

You are a sparkly, beautiful gem. I’m so grateful our paths have crossed.
xoxo

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TKW December 17, 2012 at 1:07 pm

So grateful to have found you, too. And I’d love a caretaker right now…and a laundry lady…and a housekeeper…xoxo

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Kate December 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I remember reading this. It’s too much, isn’t it?
I’ve been thinking of you. Thinking of your mama (hugs). A big birthday (hugs).
Hope December gives you a bit of a break.

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TKW December 17, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Ah, sweet Kate–

You know that December stops for nobody. :) xo

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Sherri December 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Yes – so appropriate. I have no words for what I’m feeling. Hope you’re Ok – and your mom :).

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TKW December 17, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Sherri,

Mama is pissed off. She has to have the surgery again in mid-January (which is not uncommon for the procedure she had, but she expected to skate by). She always does expect to. :)

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Lisa December 18, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I hadn’t read your post before, had no idea you were at Columbine.
I cannot imagine the fear and helplessness those teachers must have felt, at Sany Hook, at Columbine, at any school where a threat comes and faces those little people they are responsible for.
I have not been able to read blogs, write in my own, read the papers or watch the news since Friday, it was just too raw. I too have a seven year old, who I kiss goodbye to in the morning and never once imagined not seeing her at the end of the day. Now, I imagine it too much, push the image to the back of my mind, shuffling it around like the cauliflower on my plate at christmas, not wanting it, knowing I’m going to hate it, but its still there, its not going anywhere and I just have to swallow it down and deal with it. But how do we deal with this? How do you make sense of the senseless? How do I look at the school picture of my girl, the family pictures we had taken ready for Christmas and not imagine the pictures of those kids, dressed up and proud to be in Grade One and Grade Two, in a special dress or suit, smiling with their families with the fake tree backdrop, dreaming of what they will get for Christmas, wondering if they are on the ‘nice’ list, secretly worrying they may not have made it because they keep squabbling with their little sister or brother.
I want so much to join you in the weeds, but I won’t bring whiskey, or wine, or even chocolate. If it’s OK by you, I’ll bring my kids, as I can’t bear to let them out my sight right now….

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Jennifer December 19, 2012 at 8:19 pm

I had my own birthday party for an 8yo to get through on Saturday, a slumber party no less. I’m still not sure how I did it when all I wanted to do was hide in my bedroom and cry.

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Liz @ PeaceLoveGuac December 19, 2012 at 10:11 pm

No words, indeed. But I hear you and I feel this too. Bearing witness with you, my friend.

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Dawn December 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

I do remember reading this…but it is so powerful and appropriate and even though it’s been a week since the latest heartache…well…thank you for writing it and letting us share with you in the weeds.

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