Kindergartners snatched their colored name tags off a classroom wall and dropped them into a bucket so their teacher could see which ones were missing. First-graders seated in classrooms near the school’s front entrance listened for their names, raised their hands one by one and said, “Here.”
Inside a single-story school building in the quiet hills of central Connecticut, everyone was accounted for. The glass doors were locked, and the video security system was enacted. A voice came over the loudspeaker to read the Pledge of Allegiance and then the school’s daily announcements. It was the seventh day of Hanukkah. The cafeteria would serve homemade pizza and broccoli for lunch. Christmas cookies were for sale after school in the lobby.
The date was Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.
No place is immune in the modern history of mass shootings in the United States, and this time it was Sandy Hook — where children stuff their backpacks into wooden cubbies and dress in mismatching outfits for Wacky Wednesdays, where Big Bird and Elmo run the haunted house in the gymnasium each Halloween, where a metal sign near the entrance reads, “Visitors Welcome.”
Ever since the school’s founding in 1957, its students have abided by a simple motto: “Think you can. Work hard. Get smart. Be kind.” Then, in 2010, the school hired an energetic new principal, a woman who sometimes sat cross-legged with students on the floor, and she added another clause: “Have fun.”
The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary unfolded in many ways, and in many voices.
There was the language of the state police investigation report: “On 12/14/12, at approximately 9:30 a.m., Newtown Police received a 9-1-1 call reporting a possible shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School located at 12 Dickenson Drive in Newtown.”
There was the language of emergency radio traffic: “Units responding at Sandy Hook School. The front glass has been broken. We’re unsure why.”
But, most of all on Friday, there was the simple and uncomplicated language of an elementary school, where, at 9:35 a.m., an unfamiliar voice could be heard shouting over the loudspeaker:
“Put your hands up!”
Then came popping sounds and screams. Children ducked under their desks. Adults locked doors, turned back to face their students and wondered how to explain the unexplainable.
‘It’s a drill’
In the library, three faculty members heard the noises and hustled about 15 students toward a storage closet in the library, which was filled with computer servers. “Hold hands. Be quiet,” one teacher told the kids. One child wondered if pots and pans were clanging. Another thought he heard firecrackers. Another worried an animal was coming to the door.