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.
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.