That has become a recurring question in the country’s public schools. It has echoed since April 20, 1999, when two armed students killed 12 classmates and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Classes at that school were canceled for two weeks. When teachers returned, they had no books or materials. Academics all but ceased. The Columbine community muddled through the rest of the year in the same manner that teachers and students will attempt to endure in Newtown: awash in grief, and searching for ways to cope.
Columbine biology teacher Douglas Craft wanted his students to see that “something in life was good,” so he veered from the syllabus and invited a bird lover and her hawk to come to the school auditorium and entertain the teenagers. Teacher Joe Higgins tried to busy his students with constant assignments, but then became more forgiving in his grading. “They were traumatized,” he said. “They just couldn’t concentrate.”
English teacher Paula Reed was relieved to go back to school — until she started running into ghosts of her old self. in the classroom. She studied the notes that she had written before the shooting in the margins of her planning book. They were so purposeful, so uncomplicated. “It sort of felt like someone I’d known, but it wasn’t me anymore,” she said. For the next three years, Reed struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Her hair fell out. She broke into hives. She had a tension headache for months and eventually took a leave of absence.
Thirteen years later, she is still teaching at Columbine, and she is still spooked by the annual intruder drill that requires her to huddle silently with students in class. “I know how long it lasts, and I know how dark it gets,” she said.
It was the outcome that teachers in Newtown were already beginning to dread Sunday night.
In a house just outside of town, Dori Parniawski prepared to begin her week as a teacher at Middle Gate Elementary, just down the road from Sandy Hook. She had spent the weekend trying to avoid the news. Class at Sandy Hook had been canceled for at least a week, but she would be returning the next morning to a school that was in many ways indistinguishable. “Their classrooms look like my classrooms. Their students look like my students,” she said. She had friends who taught at Sandy Hook. Her 4-year-old son was about to start school.
Throughout the weekend, Middle Gate’s administration had been e-mailing her offers of free counseling and advice from therapists about how to discuss “loss, sadness or grief” with 5- and 6-year-olds. Now, as darkness began to fall Sunday night, Parniawski searched her closet for a school outfit and thought about what she would tell her students.
“I’m going to look them in the eye and be calm,” she said, choosing a jacket.
“I’m going to tell them that this world has bad guys, but not very many,” she said, picking out matching pants.
She had spent eight years turning her classroom into what she called a “safe space,” with cushioned mats on the floor and pictures of students and their families decorating the walls. Her original lesson plan for the week had revolved around Christmas. She had bought decorative paper for the students to cut into trees and shapes. They would write their own holiday stories and make crafts to give as presents to their parents.
“Can we still do that?” she wondered.
She set out her outfit. She read the staff e-mails about the emotions she might encounter Monday morning at school. She was ready for grief. She was ready for anger and obliviousness and fear.
She was ready for work.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.