The interstate signs for Exit 10 say “Newtown, Sandy Hook,” two now-famous names that will catch the attention of even the most road-addled thru-traveler. The signs may as well say, “This is the place!” Throw the utilitarian inducements of the Mobil gas station and The Blue Colony Diner into the proffer, and it is no surprise that Newtown now has a steady stream of strangers pulling off the highway, for gas, food, and curiosity.
The volunteers at the Sandy Hook firehouse at Riverside Road and Dickinson Drive, and the residents of Crestwood Drive in Sandy Hook are by now used to seeing vehicles with out-of-state plates trying to make their way to the closest vantage points at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The empty building has been fenced off and behind barriers for months, but people keep coming; they want to see the school.
It is easy to dismiss these uninvited guests as insensitive intruders hoping to satisfy a morbid curiosity about a building without regard to the effect their presence has on the recovering town that surrounds it. And to be honest, there are still far too many showing up in Newtown who fit this description. But there are others who have known deep and painful losses in their own lives who feel a kinship with the grief in our town and want to acknowledge that in a private and personal way, often by leaving a token. As long as the old Sandy Hook School stands, we are likely to run into these visitors from time to time as they make their way along unfamiliar roads, stopping to ask directions. Telling the scoundrels from sincere hearts may be a test of our hospitality that will likely last until the town establishes a proper memorial to the 12/14 tragedy. But it is a test we should try to pass.
The tragic celebrity of our town is another part of the “new normal” that still catches us off guard. Finding that complete strangers feel a connection to us is both unsettling and disorienting at times. Newtown’s summer travelers are finding this out wherever they go. Whether tipped off by a bumper magnet or a school T-shirt, strangers draw close in support and sympathy. How we respond and engage, however, even with scoundrels, may over time shift the nature of our community’s fame so that it engenders as much respect and admiration as sympathy.