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A Sandy Hook school teacher writes about the day she went back to school.

Kaitlin Roig-Debellis is the first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She saved her entire class of six- and seven-year-olds from the horrific shooting that took place there on December 14, 2012, by piling them into a tiny bathroom in her classroom, mere feet from the brutal massacre happening outside the door.

In this extract from her gripping and powerful new book Choosing Hope, Kaitlin recounts what it was like entering the classroom for the very first time after the tragic event took place.

I went back to school with a clash of emotions.

The thought of returning to class with my students felt absolutely right, but the crater of emptiness left by those who were missing was breathtaking. With the new school came poignant reminders of what once was. There was no happy banter with our beloved principal at the front door, only two uniformed police officers and reverential silence. No joyful sounds of children from the neighboring classroom, just an empty place where they should have been. It all felt surreal. Awful.

Terrible. Wrong. Sickening.

At the same time, the distance from what happened gave my students and me a sense of separation from the tragedy. In some way, it felt like a new chance. The district had done a nice job of replicating our classroom in the new school. Our desks and cubbies, books and toys from Sandy Hook had been moved to our new room before classes started up. Someone had even hung up the jackets the students had left in their haste to get out of our old school.

Kaitlin Roig-Debellis’ book, ‘Choosing Hope’ is out now. Image supplied.

At 8:55am, like always, my students filed in, as excited to see me as I was to see them. I put on my best face, determined to make the day as comfortable as I could for my kids. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but within minutes I could feel an energy change from our old classroom, a change resulting from the hell my students had been through. Because their trust and sense of security had been shattered, it almost felt as if we were strangers at the beginning of the school year who were just getting to know one another. I knew I had my work cut out for me.

My mum was a huge help. I was asked, prior to the restart of school, if I wanted a guest teacher to assist me through the end of the school year, but I’d declined because it felt like another unwelcome change. Still, I realised that I needed an extra set of hands. My students were in a strange school and didn’t know their way around, and I couldn’t leave them alone in the classroom to walk someone to the nurse, or the lunchroom, or the lavatory. I had asked my mum if she’d be willing to help and she kindly agreed. She was a reassuring presence, for me and for my students, as were the parents who came in and out to support their children.

That first day, I decided I’d dive right in and pick up where we’d left off a month earlier. For the sake of familiarity, I wanted to stick to our former routine – announcements, attendance, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. When it came time for morning meeting, we all sat in a circle and I could feel the tension begin to ease.

“Good morning, Fantastic Friends!” I said in my perkiest voice.

“Good morning, Miss Roig,” they responded in unison.

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First-graders are people pleasers, and mine were trying so hard to be “normal” for me and for one another that my heart broke for them. I was grateful for their sweet smiles, but I saw adult-sized sorrow in their eyes. I wanted to sweep each one of them up in a big bear hug and tell them it was okay to be sad and afraid, that I was, too. But it was my job to stay upbeat and optimistic and allow them to just be children again, at least until they asked for more. That was the one thing I was afraid of: that one of them would ask something I couldn’t answer. For instance, Why? Why did this happen? Why did that man do what he did?

Those early days played out in fits and starts. I quickly discovered that, in many ways, it was as if we were back at the beginning of the school year. We were in a brand-new space, and even though the district had done its best to make sure our classroom looked the same, everything was different.

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A memorial for the victims. Image: Getty.

My students had to relearn all the things they’d known before the tragedy, from how to carry scissors in the classroom to where to return their supplies and how to organise their desks. It was clear they were suffering, but they weren’t able to verbalise their thoughts. A first-grader’s ability to articulate feelings is so different from an adult’s. It wasn’t like dealing with someone who was more mature and could tell you, “I lost my best friend,” or, “That was the boy I played with every day.”

First-graders typically don’t express their feelings with words, but their affect told me everything I needed to know. They were generally more introverted, more cautious, quieter. I noticed that the shy students, who had come out of their shells before the shooting, were once again too timid to even raise their hands. I knew it was because they were trembling inside. How could they not have been? I certainly was.

The biggest obstacle I faced was trying to teach around my students’ limited attention spans. Or nonexistent attention spans, I should say. They were so anxious and out of sorts that when I was giving a lesson, I’d look out over the class and find that I’d lost half of them before I really got started.

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Rather than being engaged in the lessons, which they were before the tragedy, now they were “checking out,” yawning and squirming and whispering to their neighbors. I’d see them looking up at the ceiling or staring off into space or fidgeting with their hands in their laps. They were always asking for permission to get up to go to the bathroom, or to get a tissue or a drink. Lessons I usually taught in one session were taking three and four. We worked at a slower pace, and I still wasn’t sure I was getting through to them.

Every class was interrupted when at least one student, and usually three or four, had a breakdown after hearing an unfamiliar noise coming from upstairs, or the hallway, or the parking lot, and understandably so. When we first got to the new school, we were unaware that construction work was being done in the classroom above ours. The sound of someone dragging a box across the floor upstairs was enough to send one little boy into a fetal position. He curled up into himself, shaking and sobbing hysterically. My heart broke as I tried to console him. Of course, I understood the depth of his fear because all of us felt it.

When one student broke down, I could usually calm him or her with soft words and a walk down the hallway. When three or four reacted, we stopped what we were doing, dimmed the lights, put on music, and colored or did yoga poses together.

Author, Kaitlin Roig-Debellis. Image: Facebook.

Often I’d read a story, trying to distract them from their fears. So many family members and close family friends had dropped off children’s books they thought would be good for such times. The books were about love and compassion and good-heartedness.

A favorite was an illustrated book by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell, Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born . . .

“Tell me again how you and Daddy were curled up like spoons and Daddy was snoring . . . Tell me again how you called Granny and Grandpa right away but they didn’t hear the phone because they sleep like logs.”

I put all the books on a ledge by my whiteboard to remind myself to read at least one each day.

Whenever something – a sound or a sight or a smell – triggered one of my students, I addressed it with the whole class. I’d say, “Okay, friends, we just heard a noise. I heard it, too. It was a desk being pulled across the floor upstairs. I’m doing okay. Are you?”

Sometimes, I’d call down to the office where the police officers were stationed and say, “We heard something and we are a little nervous. Can you please check and report back to us?” They were so compassionate and reassuring. They always got right back to us.

Sharing with my students, letting them see that we were all in this together and everything possible was being done to keep us safe, usually helped to bring them around, at least for a little while. But those discussions inevitably opened up a floodgate of questions.

“Miss Roig, do you remember that scary day?”

“Absolutely! Yes, I do! I remember that scary day very well. But we’re in a new school and we have police officers here as our helpers and they are watching our school for the bad guys.”

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“Miss Roig, are the bad guys going to come here?”

“That’s why the police officers are here, so that can’t happen. That’s their job, to keep people safe from the bad guys.”

“But Miss Roig, what if the bad guys do get in? Where would we hide?”

“I have a plan,” I promised my class. “I’ll be able to tell you about it soon.”

Lauren Rosseau was a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

I presented my ideas to the acting principal during our first week back. I needed a few extra things to give my students the sense of security they needed, I said. The safety precautions the district had taken were prudent. I had heard repeatedly that ours was the safest school in the United States, and I believed it was. But, except for the police presence, our old school had also had a comprehensive safety strategy, and look what happened there.

A buzzer and camera system, lockdown procedures and safety drills, and a partnership with local responders were all positive precautionary measures, but none of those things stopped the shooter from getting into Sandy Hook. As my students’ protector, I needed to know that everything possible was being done to make them feel safe and secure. They were astutely aware that we’d survived the first time because we had a place to hide and now we didn’t have that. If a bad guy were to get into our class, we were sitting ducks.

And even the addition of a police presence hadn’t been enough to reassure them about that. Bad guys killed police officers, too. I explained to the principal that I needed to do something to give my students and their parents some confidence that we were safe in our new school. I felt that, in order for them to stop focusing on the possibility of imminent danger, they needed reassurances that would help them to feel more in control.

With that in mind, I said, I’d come up with a specialised plan tailored to our special circumstances that I thought might help make everyone feel more secure. I shared with her the list of suggestions that I thought were very doable: a new classroom door, a fireman’s ladder, a security guard behind the school, a temporary mental-health professional in the classroom, and metal grates on the windows framing the main entrance. I explained that I believed having those things would help to ease at least some of the anxiety my students and I were feeling, as well as answer the questions being raised by some parents – specifically, what was our classroom safety plan?

The principal listened politely until I had finished making my case. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said. I hadn’t even considered she might reject my plan out of hand, but I sensed, at that moment, that our conversation was over and the subject was closed. She had plenty to do in the wake of the tragedy, and meeting the special needs of my class didn’t seem to be high on her priority list. But it was at the top of mine.

I say the following to illustrate the point. Sandy Hook Elementary was a big place. Just under five hundred students. A sixty-six-thousand-square-foot rectangle with an outdoor courtyard in the center. That’s nearly ten thousand square feet larger than a football field. The school had four main hallways, one for each grade, and, depending on enrollment, each grade had four to seven classes, plus there was an addition on the back we called “the portables,” which housed fourth-grade classes.

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Catherine Violet was a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

The shooter never got past the first three first-grade classrooms he encountered when he turned left to the corridor just past the main office. Most of the people in school that day were nowhere near that sliver of hallway where the shootings took place. Many may never have even heard the sound of the gunshots, or the horror of how powerful they were.

Of course you didn’t have to see the gunman or hear the gunshots to be traumatised by what happened. Just knowing a madman breached your school is enough to send anyone into distress. What I was trying to say, what I was desperate to get across to school officials, was that my students were likely going to be more affected by the tragedy than many others because of what they’d been witness to, and that we, as adults, needed to take whatever extra measures were necessary to help them to feel safe as they acclimated back into school.

When the principal didn’t seem to understand the reasons for my concerns, I decided to go to the superintendent with my proposal. My students were in a unique position, I explained. They had been on the front lines of the vicious attack on our school. They came woefully close to losing their young lives. Had we not somehow squeezed into that unlikeliest of hiding spots, that three-by-four-foot bathroom, we would almost certainly have died.

Click through the gallery below for all the victims from Sandy Hook.  Post continues after gallery.

They felt the breath of death as the killer darkened our first-grade corridor. They heard the resonance of carnage, the desperate cries of the victims just before they were murdered in cold blood. At six and seven years old, they knew what it was to be in the presence of evil.

How many people ever experience what they did? Because I had, I was keenly aware of how extraordinarily fragile they were, how tenuous their sense of well-being was, how frightening the world looked to them. Several times a day some student asked: “Miss Roig, what are we going to do if another bad guy comes to get us?” They asked because they understood that we shouldn’t have survived the first time and the odds of us escaping with our lives again, especially with no place to hide, were slim to none.

I appreciated that the district was providing counselors and extra security in our new school, but I thought more could be done to reassure those who had been in close proximity to the massacre. My students needed tangible evidence that everything humanly possible was being done to ensure their safety. At the very least, they needed to know we had a ladder that we could toss out the window and climb down as reassurance that, if we were ever to be faced with a similar situation, which I realized was unlikely, we had some means of escape.

The district was doing enough, the superintendent said.

“I respectfully disagree,” I said.

Where do I go from here? I wondered.

This is an edited extract from Choosing Hope by Kaitlin Roig-Debellis with Robin Gaby Fisher published by Allen and Unwin, $29.99 which you can buy here.

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