The Ripple Effects Of School Shootings: Essays Expand The Definition Of Survivors
It’s been almost seven years since Natalie Barden has been able to make a new memory with her little brother, Daniel, who was killed December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook School.
That thought is a recurring line in Ms Barden’s powerful essay “The Road To Hope,” one of 60 equally stirring entries in If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings. The book and its local contributors were the focus of an evening program, November 21, at C.H. Booth Library.
School shootings create ripple effects that reach far beyond those immediately affected by the loss of a loved one. That was one of the thoughts considered by Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman when they began a project that became If I Don’t Make It, I Love You.
The hardcover collection, published in September, gives voice to 83 survivors of gun violence. Ms Archer and Ms Kleinman reached out to teachers who were in schools when shootings occurred, family members of those who were killed, parents of children who were in a building but survived a school shooting, and community leaders.
Shortly after they began their project that became If I Don’t Make It I Love You, Ms Archer said November 21, The Washington Post estimated that 235,000 students have been directly affected by gun violence in their schools. The co-editors were struck by three things upon hearing that figure.
“It’s horribly high,” Ms Archer said. “Two, it only counts the student perspective. And three, they only counted from Columbine to Parkland. Right there, that excludes nine chapters in our book.”
Texas shootings bookmark the start and end points for If I Don’t Make It, I Love You. The book shares firsthand essays from those affected by school shootings dating back to the University of Texas-Austin tower shooting on August 12, 1966, to the May 18, 2018, shootings at Santa Fe High School.
The Washington Post figure, Ms Archer added, “does not take into account the many, many perspectives of the people who lived with the daily ripple effects of trauma.”
Getting those perspectives was imperative, Ms Archer said.
“Those voices need to be heard, and those stories need to be heard,” she said. “We need to start helping people understand that gun violence goes beyond the statistics. It goes well beyond the 235,000 who were in those schools.
“It affects communities, it affects families, and it certainly affects educators, who love students as their own kids often,” Ms Archer said, pointing out that she was speaking not only as an editor, but also as an educator.
Silence During Readings
Ms Archer and four local residents did readings from the powerful book that night. The book’s co-editors divided the task of writing introductions for each of the book’s 21 chapters.
Nearly 50 people sat nearly motionless and soundless as Cindy Carlson, who was the Sandy Hook School librarian on 12/14; Susie Ehrens, the parent of a child who survived the shooting; Mary Ann Jacob, also a Sandy Hook School librarian that day; and Natalie Barden read their essays from the book, each sharing a different point of view of 12/14.
In “Aftermath,” Ms Carlson spoke of the push and pull she felt in trying to honor those killed that morning.
“Attend every funeral for every child, but attend to your own child who was with her fourth grade class that day. Go back to school right away, but don’t go back too soon. Describe forgiveness, but don’t prescribe forgiveness. Put this sticker on your car, but not that one,” she read in part, with many in the audience nodding along, most likely having gone through similar internal conflicts.
Susie Ehrens’s voice cracked a few times while reading “The Road Back.”
“We had no idea what ‘there was a shooting’ actually meant at that time,” she read. Her writing recalled pulling into Newtown Police Station and slamming on the brakes of her vehicle, and her entire body shaking as she ran into 3 Main Street, looking for her daughter. The younger Ehrens child had been in Victoria Soto’s classroom at the time of the shootings. She and four boys had escaped from the classroom and were transported to the police station.
Mrs Ehrens struggles with the conflicting thoughts of being grateful that both of her children survived versus the guilt of knowing that 20 other sets of parents were devastated that morning.
“I felt an enormous amount of guilt, grief, and relief in equal measure,” she read, her voice breaking. “I remember thinking, how do you live a life big enough to fulfill the fate you were handed?”
As she continued her reading, however, the mother of two’s voice strengthened.
“In the years since, I’ve become a gun violence prevention advocate, a member of Moms Demand Action, and have done what I can in the way of fighting and at least speaking out against politicians who turn a blind eye to the senseless gun violence in our country.” She also read of “the overwhelming fear and joy and pride” she feels in seeing her son find his voice, holding up a sign for hours, marching in Washington, DC, fighting for commonsense gun laws.
Mary Ann Jacob also shared her memories of the morning of the shooting. In reading from “Women in the Face of Gun Violence,” she shared that her tipping point was the day, 18 months after Sandy Hook, she “watched on TV as the horror unfolded after the shooting in Isla Vista, California.”
It was while watching Richard Martinez, whose son Christopher was killed that day, plead that not one more person be taken by gun violence that Ms Jacob “knew then it was my time to stand up and speak out.”
Ms Jacob has joined Everytown for Gun Safety and uses her position as a Fellow with that organization to “teach others about the effect gun violence has on children and communities in an effort to drive change,” among other efforts.
As the women each read, the only sound in the room was an occasional sniffle. Beyond that, only the sound of the library’s lower entrance door was occasionally heard opening and closing.
As with the book that was being celebrated that night, Ms Barden’s essay was the closing chapter of the evening. Standing in front of the room she shared some of her memories of Daniel Barden, the red-headed boy with the big toothy smile whose death broke hearts around the world.
Ms Barden’s essay, titled “The Road To Hope,” not only shares some of her brother’s memories through her thoughtful words, but also through family photos. The first shows Daniel on the bottom step of a school bus, smiling right at the camera, while his sister stands to his side. Even with much of her face turned away from the camera it’s clear that she was smiling at her little brother, who she called “an old soul.”
Four years younger than Natalie, Daniel “was constantly holding the door for others and talking to kids who didn’t have many friends,” Ms Barden wrote in the early paragraphs of her essay. “Daniel made sure no one was alone at school. He even helped worms cross the hot pavement so that they wouldn’t cook in the sun. Daniel was full of light. He radiated positivity.”
During a brief Q&A session following the readings, Ms Barden said that sharing some of her family’s stories helped her.
“Putting those memories down for the first time was therapeutic,” she said. “It was amazing to be able to write my story.”
The idea of sharing stories of survivors is growing, said Mary Ann Jacob.
“It’s about personal stories and opening conversations,” she said. “There is a very important movement of survivor care that includes figuring things out, therapy, and navigation.”
Mrs Ehrens agreed, saying she sees positive changes.
“There’s more trauma training and understanding that recovery is not a straight line,” she said. “You can do well for a few months and then go right over a cliff. But therapy helps, once you find the right one.”
Listening to the readings, Heather Irving was so impressed, she said.
“I think that they’re wonderful, that they put their inner emotions on paper to help heal themselves and others,” she said. The Newtown resident had not had the opportunity, she added, to read If I Don’t Make It, I Love You prior to the program. She was among the first to purchase a copy after the readings.
“Really, for them to express themselves the way each of them did,” Ms Irving said. “I’m so glad I could be here for this.”
In addition to those that were read November 21, the Sandy Hook chapter in If I Don’t Make It, I Love You includes contributions from Abbey Clements and Geneva Cunningham. Co-Editor Amye Archer also collated excerpts from an interview with Alissa Parker into an essay.