Strolling through a shopping mall one December years ago, joyfully preparing for our daughter’s first Christmas, I stopped at one of those kiosks in the middle where they personalize Christmas ornaments. I selected one that said baby’s first Christmas and had her name and the year painted on it. Then I selected another ornament, this one with all three of our names painted on it along with the year.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was the start of what would become a family tradition for us. Each year, I select a couple new ornaments for our Christmas tree, usually to commemorate something significant from the previous year, whether it’s our family vacation or just something we’re “into” that year. I always purchase two of whatever the selection is. My plan is that when our daughter grows up and leaves our home for her own, she’ll have a complete set of Christmas ornaments that basically chronicle her life, and we’ll have our set.
There are cute little airplanes that recall her first plane trip. There are the pretty peacocks that recall when she played the part of a peacock in a children’s program at church. There are ornaments from Sea World, LegoLand, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and New Orleans, among other places. We have Dora the Explorer ornaments, Hello Kitty ornaments and winky-face emoji ornaments. We have Houston Astros ornaments and Houston Texans ornaments, although this past Christmas my husband forbade me from putting the Houston Texans ornaments on the tree for reasons we won’t go into here.
My team and I were preparing a newspaper to go to press late Tuesday when we learned of the tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde – the senseless massacre that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
The following morning when we received our regular post-production email from our publisher, Kelli Barnes, it started, “I just found out from the publisher of the Uvalde Leader-News that one of his reporters lost their child in the shooting. We were already feeling how close to home this tragedy struck, but this makes it even more personal.”
And she’s right. It does.
Austin Lewter, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism, expressed it perfectly. “Community newspapers cover tragedies firsthand when the victims are often people they know. They are there when the network news trucks leave. They are there when no one else is paying attention anymore.”
I read an article this week by Mike Hixenbaugh, a senior investigative reporter for NBC News, based in Houston. He’d interviewed a teacher from Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School. The article stated, when she heard gunfire explode down the hall, she knew exactly what it was. She shouted for her kids to get under their desks and sprinted to lock her classroom door. The children did exactly as they were told, she said. “They’ve been practicing for this day for years,” the teacher said.
My body turned cold as I re-read that horrifying statement. “They’ve been practicing for this day for years.”
It never even occurred to me that perhaps my own daughter, a high school student, has been practicing for years also, a terrifying thought that crossed my mind one morning in the shower.
When I knocked on her bedroom door later, asking, “Of all your years in public school, have you ever participated in active shooter drills?” I don’t know what I expected her answer to be, but when she answered, “Oh yeah, many,” I was again left cold – cold and speechless.
Many times this week my thoughts have shifted back to that December afternoon in 2012. The one where we learned of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in which 26 people were killed, 20 of whom were six and seven-year-old children.
I remember sitting in the breakroom attempting to eat lunch with my friend and co-worker, Daphne, as the TV continued giving updates and showing the precious faces of those children. We were seated side by side at a table and there was so much silence – other than the TV – that it was practically uncomfortable. When we finally looked at each other, our faces mirrored each other’s. We both had eyes filled with unshed tears. We couldn’t speak for the giant lumps in our throats.
All I could think of was my own baby girl. Just two months shy of her sixth birthday, she was the same age as these children. I thought about walking her into Livingston Montessori School that morning and helping her put her backpack and jacket in her cubby. I tried to imagine the parents who had dropped their own children off at school that morning, having no way of knowing that they wouldn’t be picking them up that afternoon.
That Christmas when it came time to select that year’s ornaments, I was stumped. With that horrific tragedy still so fresh on my mind, I guess my heart just wasn’t in it. But then one day, I saw and knew. I happened to stumble across some peace symbols, in hot pink and teal no less, which just happened to be my daughter’s very favorite colors at the time. Of course, she was too young to know about the shooting or understand the significance of the ornaments, she just thought they were pretty. Yet every year when I put those hot pink and teal peace symbols on our tree, I think about those children and their parents, silently giving thanks for my own daughter.
I don’t know what the answer is. What I do know is that I’m tired. I’m tired of people in positions of power – people who can make a difference – doing absolutely nothing but grandstanding and spouting empty words. I’m tired of the talking heads on TV and their theories. I’m tired of the ad infinitum talk about gun control and mental illness. But more than anything, I’m tired of children dying.