I grew up maybe a half-hour from Newtown, Connecticut, in a town called Ridgefield that, today, became momentarily someplace you might know about when someone spotted someone with a gun (or something) near one of the schools and all of the schools in town went on lockdown. That would have included Ridgebury Elementary School, where I went, high up on a hill in an out of the way part of town, surrounded by woods and bordered by a swampy area at the bottom of a grade that was great for sledding in the winter.
If you walked in the front entrance to the school, the office would be on your left, and past that, turning left in front of a large tapestry, a hallway that seemed forever long to a six year old waiting for classes to start on the first day, the nurse and guidance counselor offices on the left, a bank of windows looking over quintessential New England on the right. I sat in that hallway on an October day in 1987 waiting for classes to start, nervous and alone, closely examining my sneakers and the snow outside. The hallway teed into the library, where I once put on a puppet show to tell the story of the Lorax with friends. Down the hall to the right were the art rooms, where I would spend lunches and some time after school, especially in the older grades, working on a large collaborative painting of a walled garden with the other children termed “gifted artists” and where, once a year, we would come together, those same “gifted artists,” to create the school banner for our four-elementary-school Field Day, red and white in our colors, loudly attempting to win the day. Back the other way were the classrooms, and below them the art spaces—the music room, where Mr. Lebekin would lead us patiently in rhythm exercises, turning da-dada-DA into a group competition and crowning a winner who got to hold the Sock-It-To-Me Award, a green woolen sock with a tacky medal sewn on, and for which said winner would be serenaded by the class and made to feel generally special in song.
The auditorium across the hall is where I stood on a stage and sang in the school musical about having a crush on a girl and even then felt something was a little wrong in the sentiment, and where, at Christmas time, they would set up little tables and you would bring in photos from home and make buttons and magnet using amazing machines that popped the photo behind plastic and backed it with a metal piece, and that you could take home and give with pride as presents at just this time of year. Down the hall, near the cafeteria, where everyone waiting for lunch had to line up, and so everyone had to see, there was a wall where, though I’m sure it’s long painted over now, I had the honor of painting a block, a cinder block, one of just a few people asked to do so each year, to commemorate my five years at Ridgebury. Red and white, prideful, included.
Our classrooms were bright and bursting with color, paints and glues and glitter and paper wrapping me up in a feeling, 25 years later, of incredible comfort and security and celebration.
It gives me physical pain to think what all that bright bursting color would look like smeared with blood and shot through with bullets. I found myself grasping about, thinking about what I do, wondering, in the least clicheed way possible, what the point was.
And then I read this:
“Clerk Maryann Jacob was working with a group of 18 fourth-graders in the library when the shooting broke out. She herded the children into a classroom in the library, but then realized the door wouldn’t lock.
“They crawled across the room into a storage space, locked the door and barricaded it with a filing cabinet. There happened to be materials for coloring, she said, ‘so we set them up with paper and crayons.’”
And then I saw this:
And then I heard this:
There is no understanding any of this. But there is coping. There is celebrating life lost. There is, in moments of crisis, the creation of art to express pain that can’t be expressed, to calm nerves in the face of terrible fear, to sing songs to commemorate a moment.
We don’t make art for the economics, and we shouldn’t make art simply for ourselves. It is in exactly these moments, these horrible moments—and also in the day-to-day moments, the lost lonely days of being an awkward child, the distance between you and the people around you, the darkness that can descend when you feel like no one understands you, the sadness that no one knows about—it is in these moments too that art matters. Let the world sing out, let life transform. Let us be better than we were, and let us remind ourselves, as we always have, of our best, our worst, our aspirations through the art we, alone in all the creatures, have been gifted to create. Let us howl, let us scream, let us build monuments and give children crayons and paper. Let us teach them that art endures, and that we endure through art, and that everything, no matter how horrible, can be fought, and fought hard.