Tragedy to Teachable Moment: Moving Forward, Choosing Hope
On December 13, 2012, life was looking good for Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis. She was engaged to be married and she worked at her dream job, first–grade teacher, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher from the youngest of ages,” said the 32-year-old Roig-DeBellis, author of the book “Choosing Hope: Moving Forward from Life’s Darkest Hours,” at her Greenwich home recently. “I was always so curious about the other children I saw.”
When she was five, she asked her father if she could babysit their neighbor, who was just three years old. She went on to be a mother’s helper, a camp counselor and a nanny as she grew up and eventually was accepted into UConn’s Neag School of Education.
“I knew I wanted to work with kids and the natural translation was becoming a teacher. There was never a question in my mind that was what I wanted to do.”
Just a year out of college, Kaitlin applied for several teaching jobs in the state in search of a first-grade teaching position.
After an interview for a fourth-grade teaching job with the Newtown Public School district, she still remembers the phone call she received in the following days.
“I have bad news and good news,” she remembers Sandy Hook’s hiring principal saying. “The bad news is that I hired a teacher who has lots of fourth-grade experience. The good news is a first-grade position just opened up. Would you like it?”
Roig-DeBellis jumped at the opportunity—a dream come true.
“I remember in my first couple months working there that Sandy Hook Elementary was a special place,” she said. “I had amazing friends and an amazing education. On December 13, I had my dream job and I was looking forward to getting married.”
What happened the following day, she says, will not define who she is. The tragedy, detailed in the chapter titled “My Darkest Hour,” is exclusively her and her students’ experience.
Kaitlin woke up on a beautiful December Friday morning and remembers rushing out the door to make it to school to greet her students, who were eager for the holidays that were just around the corner.
That same morning, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his 52-year-old mother, Nancy, then loaded an arsenal of firearms into his Honda Civic and drove just five minutes away to Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Most of Lanza’s recent communication with his parents, who were divorced, was through e-mail. His father described him as a “normal, little weird kid.” As a kid in the halls of his middle school and high school, he had been shy and awkward. His daily attire consisted of a turquoise button down shirt that always seemed to swallow his underweight frame, and he was always equipped with pocket protectors and a briefcase—not the standard backpack.
Adam received public, private and home schooling while growing up, and then he took classes at the nearby Western Connecticut State University. His online history revealed a troubled teen well versed in gun talk. The Lanza home was later found to have over 1,600 rounds of ammunition in it.
Six feet tall and weighing an almost anorexic 112 pounds, Lanza shot his way through the Sandy Hook Elementary school entrance carrying multiple firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition on that Friday—December 14, 2012.
Twenty children and six adults were killed in their own classrooms and offices.
After the initial gun shots—fired just feet from her classroom—Kaitlin had just seconds to size up the situation and hide her 15 students in a single-occupancy bathroom located in a corner of the classroom.
It was there that her students, holding back tears and squeezed in tight like fingers in a fist, said things like, “I just want my mom,” “I don’t want to die before Christmas,” and “I’ll lead the way! I know karate.”
Hours later, when police officers found them all hiding there, Kaitlin made them slide their badges under the door to prove who they were; only then did she allow her charges to be led out of the school.
“You don’t just live through that and come out unchanged,” said Roig-DeBellis.
In the three years since the tragedy, Kaitlin—now married to Nick DeBellis—has focused on the questions she can answer rather than pondered those she can’t.
She does her best to shrug off Sandy Hook hoaxers who believe that nobody died that day, or that Adam Lanza never existed, though she adds that their sometimes hostile chatter is constant.
“There are no words for what that really does to me,” Roig-DeBellis says, referring to the latest online personal attack.
After the tragedy, communities from around the world helped support Sandy Hook Elementary with thousands of boxes of teddy bears, school supplies and toys. More than 63,000 teddy bears alone were delivered to Newtown among the thousands of other toys.
Roig-DeBellis took the opportunity as a teachable moment with her class and launched a non-profit called Classes 4 Classes to connect with other classrooms and to show that it is far better to give than to receive.
One class “sponsors” another, giving to that class supplies it needs without any expectation of getting anything in return—other than learning how good it feels to give freely. The receiving class gives in turn to another class, and thus the cycle continues and grows.
“We’re all connected,” Roig-DeBellis said. “Kids need to learn from an early age that they can play an active part in that. Every project is crowd-funded and this gives kids the power to enact social change.
“My kids were getting, getting and getting in those initial weeks after that day,” said Roig-DeBellis. Donations continued to pour in from around the globe, so she told her students that they would give the gifts back to a classroom that really needs it. The response, she says, was inspiring and encouraging. “Not even a month transpired and they were more excited about the classes we were going to help than what we were receiving.”
Roig-DeBellis tries to keep in touch with all of her students and says the purpose for writing her book stemmed from others connecting their pain to her own. Without hesitation, Roig-DeBellis jumped at the opportunity to write her story, and she says “Choosing Hope” is a lifeline for anyone who finds themselves in darkness.
“I will always move forward,” Roig-DeBellis says. “But I will never move on. I can’t. December 14 is and always will be wholly a part of me. I can’t move on from it, but I will always move forward. It’s okay to not be able to move on from something—but to be able to move forward is a very clear distinction.