Sandy Hook and School Shootings -Reading, Writing, and Remembering

Ten years ago a stunned nation said never again.

A decade ago when 20 innocent first graders and 6 brave staff were killed by an assault rifle at a suburban Connecticut elementary school, we said enough is enough.

But keeping children safe still seems beyond our grasp.

Today there are children who never knew school life before Sandy Hook. I recently spent time with one of them, a 10-year-old girl, born the same year as that tragedy in Newtown. With every birthday this little girl has had, the death toll from mass shootings has kept rising.

Discussing my collage with a viewer at the Heckscher Museum

Our meeting was particularly poignant. One Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I was at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington to give a talk about my work that is on exhibit.  Afterward, I noticed a family huddled in conversation around one of my pieces, a collage entitled “Ending Gun Violence- It’s About Time- Hope and Prayers Aren’t Enough.” The piece a graphic statement on gun violence chronicles all the hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. over the past 4 decades.

I watched as the mother tried to describe the meaning of the collage to her daughter. Walking over, I introduced myself as the artist of the piece and gently explained to the little girl the genesis of the piece. Her parents seemed grateful for the help.

Sally Edelstein Collage "Ending Gun Violence. On view at the Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington

Sally Edelstein Collage “Ending Gun Violence- It’s About Time- Hope and Prayers Arent Enough.” On view at the Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington

Pointing out the centerpiece of the collage, a now yellowed full-page ad that ran in the New York Times in July of 1969, I told her I was 14 when I first saw this in the newspaper and had saved it all these years. I was not that much older than this little girl named Ashley, who had lived with more gun violence in her short 10 years than I ever had at that age.

The ad appeared one year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and 6 years after the shooting of President John Kennedy. I had been moved by the headline that asked the reader:

” Hold onto this page for 1 year and hope and pray it’s ended.”

“The trouble is hoping and praying isn’t enough,” I read out loud. “Violence won’t end unless you’re willing to start the ending.”

I had saved it all these years, and clearly, the violence hadn’t ended. It had escalated. It was time to use this aging piece of paper.

Surrounding the ad on the canvas, I had handwritten all the hundreds of mass shootings since that newspaper advertisement ran. When I made this piece in 2019 more than 400 people had been shot in over 230 school shootings. It would now take more than one canvas to fill the number that has happened since I created this.

Lockdowns

Looking into her eyes, I knew the fear of gun violence was part of her day-to-day experience despite living in a protected suburban community. Tentatively she opened up to me about her school lockdowns, describing how she is taught to hide during active shooter drills.

School lockdowns are now as normal as school lunches. But because it is normal, it isn’t any less scary.

It is so scary in fact her school doesn’t refer to it as a lockdown preferring to use a euphemism called “Mr. Lock.” When “Mr. Lock, come to the office!” blares out from the school public address system, every teacher and student springs into action.

Pupils make a dash for a classroom, library, or any supposedly safe area. Teachers slam and then barricade the classroom door with a desk or a file cabinet and turn off the lights. Pupils crouch behind a wall or hide under a desk in absolute silence in case they hear a gunshot.

School children learning to protect themselves (L) Duck and Cover in the 1950s, (R) Lockdown hiding today

Hearing about Mr. Lock made me think of Bert the Turtle that animated turtle who taught my generation to “duck and cover” in a catchy song.

No child should have to think about their survival.

I had spent a childhood doing the very same thing. For those of us who grew up during the 1950s and 1960s the unrelenting fear of nuclear attack was the subtext of our lives. Air raid drills were as common as fire drills.

Just as Ashley’s experience began for her in kindergarten so did mine.

During my first week of kindergarten in 1960 I was indoctrinated into the cold war world, I would be growing up in. Along with being given my very own Dick, Jane, and Sally workbook, I was issued dog tags with my photo, address, and telephone number written on it that students were to wear in case of an atomic attack for identification.

As I ducked and covered under my desk, or crouched in the cold tiled hallway as we filed out in size order, my plastic tag dangled from my neck. In the silence as I crouched, I’d listen and wait for the sound of the Soviet plane overhead that would drop the bomb, with the same fear as a child today waits in fear of a gunshot.

The lasting impact of these drills on the well-being of students was never well understood. I suffered from nightmares and still do, just as I’m certain children do today. We need to address what the long-term mental health impact of drills might be. These are formative years of their lives when brains and coping skills are just developing. While not every student will experience an active shooter incident most will experience a drill.

The big difference is the unthinkable never happened for my generation. For this young generation of students, the unthinkable is no longer unthinkable. It happens with all too much frequency.

We were no more capable of protecting our children against a nuclear bomb with “duck and cover” than we are in protecting them today against high-capacity automatic weapons with “run, hide, and fight.” While our nuclear deterrent worked and kept us from a nuclear attack, appropriate gun legislation will do the same for us now.

Enough is enough. Let’s start the ending.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2022

7 comments

  1. For me, born in 1945, the threat of atomic war was not limited to school, so, in spite of “duck and cover drills,” I felt safe at school. I liked school. I didn’t associate school with danger. After all, an atomic bomb would affect our homes and the whole city & county. That’s quite different from going to school and preparing specifically for a “school shooting.”
    Also. in the 1950s, my father — who always went hunting in deer season — explained that the NRA was trying to teach hunters about gun safety — and I remember that wearing orange hunting vests or caps was one part of the safety campaign, because hunters who were quick on the trigger occasionally shot anything that moved in the forest — often, another hunter dressed in brown clothing. Fortunately, those idiots didn’t have rapid-fire deer rifles then, and hunters like my father took pride in a one shot “clean” kill. They would never want an animal to suffer a prolonged and painful death. Other times….

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are not comparable only the similarity of having drills to prepare for extreme danger which created a climate of fear and anxiety. The school itself was a safe place and of course, a nuclear bomb could happen anytime anywhere, just as a shooter can attack in a shopping mall, a theatre, a parking lot, etc.

      Like

  2. Just as Ashley’s experience began for her in kindergarten so did mine.(and mine in grade one). Your article is a powerful piece of words and art. We have strict gun laws in Canada but recently a debate is taking place about assault weapons. Some want to be able to legally purchase them. The far right UCP in Alberta make Trump look like a saint. The story made Reuters and here is a link to the Washington Post. https://tinyurl.com/2gplk82q

    Like

    • One of the most gratifying experiences as an artist is being to interact with a viewer of an art piece and discuss it. This particular exchange was very powerful for me, and I’m glad it could come across to you that way.
      Thank you for the link, that is certainly concerning that there is a debate about legally purchasing assault rifles. One need only look at the States to see the devastation of those war-like weapons in the wrong hands.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Journalism as Art and commented:
    Looking into her eyes, I knew the fear of gun violence was part of her day-to-day experience despite living in a protected suburban community. Tentatively she opened up to me about her school lockdowns, describing how she is taught to hide during active shooter drills.

    School lockdowns are now as normal as school lunches. But because it is normal, it isn’t any less scary.

    It is so scary in fact her school doesn’t refer to it as a lockdown preferring to use a euphemism called “Mr. Lock.” When “Mr. Lock, come to the office!” blares out from the school public address system, every teacher and student springs into action.

    Pupils make a dash for a classroom, library, or any supposedly safe area. Teachers slam and then barricade the classroom door with a desk or a file cabinet and turn off the lights. Pupils crouch behind a wall or hide under a desk in absolute silence in case they hear a gunshot.

    Like

  4. Sally I do not want to make Canada look good when it comes to mass shootings. We’ve had far too many. Easing the guns laws would be a crime https://tinyurl.com/2h2e39tc

    Like

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