What's It Like to Live in Newtown?
Sandy Hook resident Sophfronia Scott never asked to have these conversations, but since the shooting that left 20 students and six educators dead, they follow her. Like when she tells a person from out of town that she's from Sandy Hook.
"There's that stunned silence, and they say, 'Oh. Oh, those poor people. And how are you doing?'" said Scott. "I will tell them right away, because I know they want to ask, and if anything, I know they are afraid to ask. So I will say to them, 'Yes, I'm from Sandy Hook. Yes, my son attends the school. Yes, he was in the building.'"
As the one-year anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook approaches, Newtown has become the focus of many policy questions: gun control, mental health care, and school security, to name a few. But what about a simpler question: what's it like to live there now?
Scott's son, Tain, was in third grade when the shootings happened. Tain made it out, but his close friend, Ben Wheeler, died. "When I asked him about his friend... and said, 'How are you feeling about him?' He just looked at me," Scott said. "His eyes widened, and he said, 'You know, Mama. I just feel like I'm going to see him again. He's going to come down from heaven, and he's going to be here with all of us.' And I said, 'You know -- I think you're right.'"
The conversations follow her around town, too, as Newtown residents struggle to find the right things to say to one another. "We all grieve differently," Scott said. "And even in this community, you have no idea how the person next door to you, or next to you may be grieving. I feel like like I'm always walking on eggshells, because I worry I will say something that will offend someone else's emotions, because we are not dealing with it in the same way."
Since the shooting, Scott said she's sorting through a paradox. Newtown is the only place in the world that truly understands what her family is going through. It's where her son can get the friendship and support he needs. But at the same time, the shadows of that day follow her everywhere.
As Scott put it, Newtown has become her world. "So that could be a comforting thing," she said. "Or that could be feeling like, 'Wow. I'm tied to this community.' I don't know yet, because it's a new thing. I haven't processed that yet."
Frank DeAngelis has had more than a decade to process his grief. He's the principal at Columbine High School, the site of a massacre that left 12 students and one teacher dead in 1999. After the shooting at Sandy Hook, DeAngelis came out and met with school administrators from Newtown.
"I truly believe that people feel there is going to be this magical day in which they're going to wake up and everything's going to get back to normal," said DeAngelis. " I think some people place that day at the one-year anniversary. Some may place it at the five-year, but that day of normalcy is not going to happen. What I tell people is: we had to redefine what normal is. It's going to be with us for the rest of our lives."
Recalling his visit to Connecticut following the shootings, DeAngelis said he told the people of Sandy Hook Elementary that tragedy will always be part of their identity. "We all belong to this club, a club that no one wants to be a member," he said. "Whether it be Virginia Tech; Chardon, Ohio; whether it be Sandy Hook -- we're all part of this group. All I can assure you: I can't fix things, but you're not in this alone. I think that's so important."
And he told them something else. "I said, 'Is it going to be tough? I'm not going to stand up here and say everything's going to be great.' Because it's a long road," DeAngelis said. "But that does not mean you give up hope. I was living proof of that. It was 14 years ago when it happened at Columbine, and there are going to be good days, and they're going to be days when there are some setbacks."
I asked Scott what her setbacks are like. She's a novelist and a former journalist, which means she likes to listen to people. Since the shootings, she said she often finds herself lending a sympathetic ear to friends or to colleagues, but sometimes it all becomes too much. "It's like my compassion and my listening is tapped out," she said. "And then someone will ask me a question like, 'Are you avoiding the media?' or, 'Are you going to the memorial service?' and I can feel that I'm being short, and maybe even a little defensive, because I'm done. I have no more compassion. I can't be ... I want to be left alone. I can't do this."
But it's those shared feelings that, in some ways, make the people of Newtown feel closer closer than ever. "You know, when this first happened," Scott said, "it felt as though we all saw each other naked. The best of us came out. And the worst of us came out. And it's hard to move forward when you've seen that."
Scott said she'll continue to do as she and so many others in Newtown have always done: taking things day by day.