Editor’s Note: Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle, taught math for forty years in what National Geographic Magazine called the “nation’s most diverse high school.” During those 40 years in the classroom, Stu Singer taught students in times of war and disasters, both natural and man made. When Stu Singer writes, he writes from experience.
By Stuart Singer
What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, December 14 defies explanation. An act of unimaginable violence against twenty first graders is beyond any rational comprehension. No amount of investigating will ever reveal a cogent explanation. But while my angst has been focused primarily on those six and seven-year-olds and their families, I have also spent a great deal of time thinking about the actions of the Sandy Hook staff during that horrific episode.
The definition of commitment and courage
First responders—firemen, police officers and EMTs—are trained to ignore normal human emotion and charge toward danger when others would retreat. It is reasonable to assume that the faculty of Sandy Hook did not perceive their jobs in a similar manner. On the morning of December 14, they entered the building with the same goal they had every previous day—ensuring that the young minds in their classrooms were given an opportunity to develop and flourish. But on that Friday motivated by the unique bond between teacher and student they willingly exposed themselves to peril without a second thought.
These are stories of true heroism. A masked gunman blasts his way through a locked door and the principal and school psychologist run into the line of gunfire that takes their lives. A first-grade teacher hides half of her students in cubbies and then absorbs the first hail of bullets intended for the young children huddled behind her.
With the sound of gunfire reverberating throughout the building, the other teachers immediately locked classroom doors while comforting their terrified students. When the halls became quiet, they cautiously opened their doors and then tethered themselves to a chain of children as they navigated through broken glass, smoke and death to find safety outside. A journey they could have negotiated alone in seconds became a slow migration as they shepherded their precious cargo.
The front line of catastrophe
Teachers are often on the first responders when dealing with the emotions of students during terrifying times. As a veteran of forty years in the classroom, a span that encompassed 9/11, the Beltway Sniper and Columbine, I have observed the special link between educators and students particularly during times of emotional distress.
In my book I wrote about the intersection of September 11, 2001 and the classrooms in my school:
“The events of September 11 had a profound impact on Stuart High School. The building was situated less than ten miles outside of Washington, D.C. and a 15-minute drive from the Pentagon. Throughout the day the sirens of emergency vehicles could be heard from inside the building. Not surprisingly a sense of panic quickly moved through the school as the news reports unfolded. False rumors of attacks on a nearby shopping center escalated the fears.
The entire community was particularly sensitive to the attacks. Many students and faculty members had family and friends who worked for the Federal government… The student body included a large Muslim population and within hours there were angry confrontations in the halls and classrooms between various students. Parents began to pour into the school to remove their children. The community was stunned and dazed…
The school system closed for the next two days which proved to be a very wise decision. It allowed people to process what had occurred and gave the staff time to plan how to deal with potential problems. It would be disingenuous to say the school environment returned to “normal” but I was pleasantly surprised how much those two days had allowed the school to regain some normalcy. This response was a tribute to the tolerance of the diverse student body and the attitudes of the staff.”
On September 11 I saw first-hand the bond between students and staff. Though the personal impact of the attacks were great, the faculty focused that day on the needs of the student body. A constant stream of information was provided by the administrative staff and teachers quickly counseled students in need. On the days that followed the familiar rhythms of the classroom became a refuge from the relentless onslaught of stories about one of the most horrendous days in U.S. history. That safe haven was created by educators who had to set aside their own pain and anxiety to protect the welfare of their kids.
The Beltway Sniper
A year later children in the D.C. area had to endure the nightmare of the Beltway Sniper. As the death toll moved toward double digits, schools throughout the region were locked down and staff was on constant alert for any suspicious activity. The terror intensified exponentially for Stuart HS when one of the shootings occurred at a shopping center less than a half of mile from the school. For much of the student body their journey to school the next morning was punctuated by flashing police lights and crime scene tape.
Throughout the three-week ordeal faculty members stood guard in the parking lot as the busses loaded and unloaded in the morning and afternoon. During off periods, teachers would patrol the hallways alongside the administrative staff. The symbolism was inescapable. Within the confines of the building the staff would do everything possible to ensure that the students would be safe from a deranged sharpshooter.
A special relationship
One family member of a fallen Sandy Hook teacher eulogized her by saying, “She never called them her students; she always called them her kids”. This perspective can help to explain the gallant actions of that teacher. It is not, however, a unique relationship in the world of education. It is a connection that can be difficult to describe or explain. In fact it may well be that no one can fully understand this special bond unless they have experienced it at the front of a classroom. But it is the motivating factor that compels so many teachers to battle through every obstacle blocking the path to success for their students.
And on one horrific morning it turned the staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School into true heroes.