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Special Section: Sandy Hook School

A Son’s Fears and a Father’s Response

Starting to feel safe again after the Sandy Hook tragedy.
A therapist encouraged the writer’s son to write a letter to him, explaining what the boy saw, to help his parents and specialists better understand his fears.
A therapist encouraged the writer’s son to write a letter to him, explaining what the boy saw, to help his parents and specialists better understand his fears.

Editor’s Note: Ian Eller’s two children attend Sandy Hook Elementary School. His wife, Rebecca, is the art director for District Administration magazine.

“Everything is going to be OK,” I said.

“You don’t know that,” my son answered.

I was sitting on the edge of my son’s bottom bunk, his sister sleeping above, when he said those words and nearly broke me. It was the night before the first day of school in the new Sandy Hook Elementary, formerly the Chalk Hill Middle School in the Monroe Public Schools. Earlier that day we had been to the school, visited their classrooms, met the police officers and seen the security firsthand—heavy doors, narrow windows, cameras, buzzers. We saw the counselors again, and spent time with the therapy dogs.

Now, an hour past his bedtime, my son looked at me with tear-filled eyes and silently begged me not to leave him.

In the days since the surreal horror of December 14th, my children have responded to the tragedy differently. My daughter is a first grader, and she lost many of her friends to the gunman. She has been melancholy, sad in a way only a child who feels but does not understand her feelings can be. She has drawn, sung, and given and received thousands of hugs since that day. My 9-year-old son has been less sad and more frightened, locking every door he passes and imagining every sound as the precursor to an impending attack. He talks about the screaming and gunfire he heard, about hiding in the closet, about the man who pounded on the door and demanded entry, and about the shell casings he walked through to get out of the school.

On our drive home from visiting the new school, his anxieties came out in a flood of questions: How many police were going to be there? How many at each door? Where are the cameras? What if the bad guys kill the police? What if the bad guys steal the police’s guns? There’s no closet in this room, where do we hide when the bad guy comes? As my wife tried to answer each question rationally, and my son countered each answer with an ever more ludicrous potentiality, I drove white knuckled and jaw clenched in an impotent, helpless rage directed at Adam Lanza.

I am my son’s provider, his protector, yet I am powerless against this dead man who still haunts him. So on that night before the new first day of school I relented. He could stay up and play a game until it was time for me to go to bed, and I would sleep on the air mattress in his room. Again. If he needed to climb in with me in the middle of the night, he could. He would. It was enough to calm him, I went to the living room to be with my wife, pouring a very tall glass of wine along the way.

The thing was, my wife and I were as scared as he was. Neither of our children had been without at least one of us since that day. We knew that routine and normal and predictable were good things, things we needed, but putting our kids on that bus, sending them to that school—these were superhuman requests. By the time we went to bed, her to our room and me to the air mattress on my son’s floor, we were no closer to knowing how we would manage these herculean tasks, only that we must.

After too little sleep, I woke. I dressed. I prepared my lunch. I started the car. I filled my coffee mug. Then I stopped. I stared dumbly at the front door. They’ll be okay, I said to myself. You don’t know that, I retorted. The courage drained out of me. I was left hollow, and in that space unspoken fears began to echo.

So I thought of our children’s new school: every paper snowflake hung in the halls and classrooms to create a virtual winter wonderland; every child’s desk placed exactly as it had been, down to the half-empty water bottles and messily arranged colored pencils; every message of hope and love and support from around the country and the world that decorated the stairwells; every teacher and administrator and secretary and custodian that would be at work, despite their own fears. All of these things that I had seen and knew would be there for my children that day, they soothed me and allayed my fears.

You have to believe it, a voice said from deep inside. It was the same voice that had spoken to me on December 14th, when I was standing in that parking lot, waiting for my children to come out of that school. I did believe it, and I went to work.

All day I fretted. My wife put them on the bus with a smile, at least until it was out of sight. Friends who chose to stay at the school texted us whenever they saw our kids, and always it was some variation of, “They look happy!” Most telling was when I picked them up from the afterschool program and they complained I had gotten them too early. On the way home, they excitedly told me of their days, my daughter about how her teacher read her stories and my son about how many police and FBI and army men were there to protect them.

Despite all the pain and the tears, so much has gone right for us and our children since that day that I cannot help but feel thankful—to the first responders, to our municipal government, to the president and the governor, to the American Red Cross, to the therapy dogs, to the “Pie Lady,” who brought comfort food, and to everyone who sent their love and support to our town after this event. But mostly, I am thankful to our school, to the staff and the faculty and the administration who made my son, and me, feel safe again.