In the White House press briefing room this afternoon, a mutedly distraught President Obama addressed the nation in the wake of the unfathomable tragedy that was taking place in the town of Newtown, Connecticut. From behind his dais, the President was forced to pause at moments to wipe a few rogue tears from his cheek as he expressed his condolences to the families of the 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School whose lives were so cruelly wiped away earlier that morning. President Obama acknowledged what our hearts and guts already knew, namely that these tragedies have occurred with a frequency and force too regular and profound to be written off as an aberration. Speaking to the nation not as the Commander in Chief, but as the First Father, Obama gave voice to our national despair before closing with a section of Psalm 147, which extols God’s ability to, “heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.”
While such a sentiment is certainly suited to the solemnity of the occasion, the youth and beauty of these children and the adults who watched over them leads me in a different direction. When I was in elementary school, we had a chunk of time set aside once every week when the entire class would spill into the library and have reading time. Without fail, there were two things that we always fought over. The first was which three kids would be picked by our intrepid teacher to sit on the comfy green snake, a 10 foot python that lay in the far corner of the library behind the piano and next to the biographies that no one liked to read. Originally, I can only assume the snake was olive green in color, but over the years his plush, unsheddable skin had been worn down and colored brown with the dust and sweat of the youth who used him. But, in spite of his haggard appearance, there was no piece of real estate in all of 1st Grade so valuable as on the back of that snake.
The second thing we all fought over were who would get to read the holy trinity of children’s books. On one end was the not-entirely age appropriate Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, which was a macabre collection of tales designed to make kids wet the bed while they were still awake. There were stories of spiders that crawled inside a girl’s ear while she was showering and laid eggs in her brain and a butcher who killed his wife to make special sausage out of her. These were stories that made Goosebumps look like Goodnight Moon and I very much doubt if any teacher would let kids get their hands on them today, but we certainly took every opportunity to scare the bejeezus out of ourselves.
The other two books in the trinity were Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. With the exception of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School is Upside Down series, I can think of no two other children’s books that are more wondrous and beatifical in the whole wide world. There was the poem of the Peanut Butter King who was so obsessed with peanut butter sandwiches that he finally glued his mouth shut will all the sticky-icky, brown and gooey peanut butter he gobbled down. Or, there was his instructions on how to make a Hippo Sandwich with some bread, cake and string (spoiler: no one can eat an entire hippo). But, the poem that came in to my head tonight as I was struggling to wrap my mind around what had just happened in Newtown was one called The Little Boy and The Old Man:
Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.
Part of what makes this so difficult is knowing that those boys who were taken from us today won’t be around to turn into little old men. As the President said, these children, “had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.” Maybe I’ll be angry tomorrow, but right now all I can do is cry. I know America didn’t have any innocence left to lose—we had a mass shooting in Portland just 3 days ago for god’s sake—but it wasn’t these kids’ turn yet. How are you supposed to believe in Santa Claus when you see your best friend murdered 12 days before Christmas? Tomorrow I’ll be furious. Tomorrow I’ll demand assault weapons bans and mental health parity and background checks. Tonight, I’m just going to lie down and try to imagine a world I’d want to live in again. It’s there, but who knows when I’ll see it?