Newtown’s emblem—the chanticleer, a rooster—watches over our small New England community from its perch as the weathervane of the Meeting House’s white steeple. It has several bullet holes in it; a common myth claims that these date from the Revolutionary War, when troops used it for target practice. For those of us who grew up in Newtown, that rooster represents the heart of our town, and those bullet holes—whatever their origin—symbolize the hardships we faced during our three-century struggle to preserve a community where town meetings can still be the means by which we make decisions.
On Friday, a young man—about to be committed to inpatient mental care—added twenty-seven more holes to the heart of our town, robbing us of the laughter of twenty innocent children, the lives of six dedicated educators, and a mother whose struggles to raise a child with mental illness may never be fully known.
We will remember this loss, and we will grow back as defiant against any who today think bullets might degrade our community as our forebears—stalwart Yankees who weathered the war that gave our country independence and then imbued the town with a culture of service so strong that courageous educators at Sandy Hook just gave their lives, and first responders risked their deaths, to save their students and colleagues. These new heroes, and the fallen children that they tried to protect, are now as much symbols of our struggle to keep our tight-knit community as any founding myth.
We honor these heroes today, that they might not have died in vain, but instead to reveal to our nation what we often take for granted: that our schools are the hallowed places that we dedicate to passing our civic values and national ideals from one generation to the next. They are the places where passionate educators instill in the minds of our children how to think through problems, communicate clearly, cooperate in teams, overcome adversity, and, when necessary, sacrifice everything to protect what you hold most dear.
In the coming weeks, it will be important for our town to reinvest in our long tradition of coming together to weather a time of crisis. Like our forbearers, we will grapple with this challenge as a community. Somehow—some way—we will have to find ways to explain why we failed to prevent this tragedy to the surviving children in our lives. We deeply private New Englanders will have to find the energy to tell the story of our beloved town to a gawking and insatiable media while we try to comfort each other and mourn. We will have to find ways to rebuild trust that binds us together, paying no heed to the outsiders who seem to think they might exploit this time of pain to spread yet more fear and hate. And we will have to probe what care could have been offered to a troubled young man and his family, had the large mental health facility at the center of our town not been shuttered at the very time of his birth. Then the time will come for a national town meeting: a set of decisions about how to strengthen the communities that bullets are ripping asunder.
In this dialogue, there will be a tendency to break into factions. When we begin to splinter, let us remember that these heroes did not lay down their lives for or against the Second Amendment. They sacrificed themselves to protect our children, for they worked in a special place: a place where educators open our children’s’ imaginations to dreams of many possible futures and give them a hard-won pathway to becoming reality. A place where children can learn how to become citizens in a community where everyone can voice their say, yet everyone also knows they must do the hard work of balancing the rights of the individual and the good of the group. A place where these children can grow into parents and educators themselves and can pass the dreams and civic values that they learned from their teachers onto yet another generation of young minds. It is this sacred space that we as a nation need to nurture and shield from harm in each and every town in our land.
Let our memories of Newtown be of the moment when we as a nation chose to build upon the interrupted mission of the educators who today put themselves between a gun and the students in their care, sacrificing everything for the children in whom they believed. As Newtown’s chanticleer has done for centuries, it is our turn to watch over the next generation with bullet holes in our hearts and a determined vigilance to prevent these wounds of hardship from being hidden from public view. We, the living, must now engage in deep reflection on which sacrifices we are willing make to protect the traditions and values that these heroes have sanctified and preserved for us.