‘On Dec. 14th this year, I hope that you remember to be kind’

Police arrive at Sandy Hook Elementary, after the shooting on December 14, 2012 – VOA, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

School shootings have become increasingly more common in the United States. A terrifying and tragic trend that has plagued our country and caused millions of children to grow up scared to go to school.

I didn’t know what it was like to be scared to go to school until I was in fifth grade.

It was December 14th, 2012. The last Friday of school right before winter break. My middle school was buzzing with excitement and winter festivities. Everyone was trudging through until the end of the week. Christmas was coming, our wish lists were sent to Santa, and the Polar Express was bound to play in one of our classes next week. It was magical. Until it wasn’t.

I don’t remember a lot from December 14th, 2012. Eleven years later, the memories get more and more blurred. I was only 10 years old at the time, but the impact of what took place that day has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

It was time for classes to switch. While fifth grade is technically still elementary school age, my small town had fifth grade start middle school, so we were already accustomed to the bell going off and passing time in between classes.

The first thing that was suspicious to me was that there were metal chains on the doors to get outside. That had never happened before. I thought it was strange, but I didn’t know any better, so I just kept walking down the hallway to the gym, which was my next period class.

It was then that people started chattering. I asked a classmate what was going on, to which they responded, “There’s a shooter at a school in Newtown, and they’re coming here next.”

Newtown? I thought. There’s no way.

I honestly thought that they were lying. I grew up in neighboring Brookfield, Conn., a small town that one could consider a “bubble.” I was very fortunate to have never had any interactions with guns, violence, crime or anything of that nature. I don’t even think that I fully understood what that meant. A shooter, at a school, in the town next door, Newtown.

I wearily stumbled into gym class, where I was met with more metal chains on more doors. As I get older, I have gained an immense and unwavering respect for all of my teachers that day. I can’t imagine how terrified they were for their lives and our lives.

We weren’t allowed to go to the gym. We stayed in the hallway in the corner, in a complete lockdown, until they deemed it safe for us to leave. Still, nobody told us what was going on.

The next thing I remember is being in my next class. It was math. My teacher told us what had happened. A 20-year-old man broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and killed 26 people, 20 children and six teachers.

The kid in the hallway was right about one thing, and thankfully was wrong about the other.

“This is going to be really big,” my teacher said. “This is going to make national news and it is going to be a really big deal.”

We went on with the lesson as best as we could. We were learning PEMDAS: Parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction. These are the things that I remember about December 14th, 2012. I remember my math lesson. I remember the chains on the door. I remember the kid in the hallway. I remember my teacher’s remarks.

I went home that day and had one of my friends over. We were children. We couldn’t fully understand what was going on. We sat downstairs and played my Nintendo Wii while my mom sat in the kitchen, with the news on, crying.

My teacher was right: it did make national news. What we didn’t know then was that similar stories would happen 54 more times to 54 different schools and communities in the span of 10 years.

In the months following Sandy Hook, things looked a little different in our schools. Bulletproof glass was installed at the main entrance of the school. Every time you left the classroom, the door would automatically lock behind you in case of emergency. We had many more lockdown drills, where people would cry and panic at the thought of it one day being real, like what happened in the town next door.

Our community was forever impacted by the events that happened on December 14th, 2012. Eleven years later, the day still hurts. I wake up somber on the morning of December 14th every year and remain somber for the rest of the day.

Generation Z has grown up in an interesting time. We were born just after 9/11, the Great Recession happened when we were children, Sandy Hook when we were preteens, and COVID took over the world just as we were graduating high school. We’ve grown up in a time where mass shootings have skyrocketed. Everywhere we go, we look over our shoulders. We see where the emergency exits are. We have a game plan in case anything ever happens.

I am lucky to have never experienced anything like this again. I am lucky to have been safe and sound one town over on that day. And each time my phone goes off with another notification of another school shooting, I’m hit with a familiar sadness and am reminded of how lucky I truly am.

“Be kind” is the motto that rose out of this tragedy. A little green flower with the motto carved into it. There’s a “be kind” mural on the outside of my high school. Girls wore “be kind” necklaces around school.

On December 14th this year, I hope that you remember to be kind and to never forget the 26 lives lost on December 14th, 2012, and the many lives lost in the years since then.