NEWTOWN, Conn. — The day began, like all days at Sandy Hook Elementary, with the morning ritual of taking attendance.
Yellow buses rolled into the parking lot just before 9 a.m., and a dozen teachers working “bus duty” greeted them at the school’s front curb. The teachers marked off students as they descended from their buses, patting their heads and counting them out loud. Then the group entered en masse through the glass doors at the front of the school and dispersed into classrooms, where the students were counted again.
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.
They were children in a place built for children, and the teachers didn’t know how to answer them. They told them to close their eyes and to keep quiet. They helped move an old bookshelf in front of the door to act as a makeshift barricade. They wondered: How do you explain unimaginable horror to the most innocent?
“It’s a drill,” said a library clerk named Mary Anne Jacobs.
Drills they knew. Drills they understood. Their last one had been just a few weeks earlier, in mid-October, on a clear day when the children marched out of school in ordered fashion, placing their hands on each other’s shoulders to form a conga line, everyone’s eyes shut except for the designated “locomotive,” an adult at the front of the line. They had stood in the parking lot in straight lines that were never quite straight, until their teachers took attendance and marched them back inside. The drill had lasted about 25 minutes.
But now the popping sounds over the loudspeaker continued, and nobody in the library storage room thought it was safe to march outside. Jacobs decided the students needed a distraction. She found scraps of paper and some crayons on the floor of the closet, and helped pass them out. As muffled screams continued over the loudspeaker, 18 fourth graders began to color.