Friday, February 15, 2013

Authors love Sandy Hook Elementary, part 1 of 2

Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, on 12/14/12, I was a by-the-numbers part of the stunned collective: I cried, I mourned, I signed online petitions, I emailed senators and representatives, I lost focus, I held my own kids close wishing I never had to let go.

But I was also desperate for a way to do more than these things. I wanted to do something that might, in some small way, directly and immediately help the Sandy Hook community.

So the next day, hesitantly, I emailed a bunch of kidlit author/illustrator friends who live within two hours of Newtown to ask if they’d be interested in proposing to the school what I called a variety show. An excerpt:

I envision a group of us going on the same day [to put on] a kidlit author/illustrator variety show and to play games inspired by our books or just games in general (kids vs. authors soccer/volleyball/tug of war/three-legged race). I have ideas. Sure you would, too. We'd figure it out. Whatever we do, we'd keep it low maintenance. They provide the microphone, we do the rest.

It was clear that Sandy Hook’s focus for the foreseeable future would be healing. I thought a group of people with considerable experience speaking to young people could bring a bit of that, secretly wrapped up in what the kids would see as pure entertainment.

Just about everyone I asked said yes. Some, bearing out my hesitancy, worried about the delicate and overwhelming nature of the situation, as did I. When—if ever—would be the appropriate time to offer such a thing? To offer anything? The only way to find out would be to ask.

On Monday 12/17, I emailed the United Way (coordinating relief efforts) and the public library to ask if they had a sense of whether or not I should pursue the idea. That week, the children’s librarian at the town library, Alana Bennison, said she thought this would be just the kind of event that could be therapeutic. A short while later, she got back to me to say that it was okay for me to contact the Sandy Hook librarian, Yvonne Cech. I left Yvonne a message.

Understandably, I did not hear back.

However, on 12/28, Isabel Almeida of the United Way called. She said of all the offers they’d received (including some from pro sports teams), the group the superintendent wanted first was the authors. She asked if it would be possible to pull it together for the second day back to school—meaning one week from then.

I said we were all prepared to be flexible…but given how many were involved, we would all be better off with a little more time to organize, if possible. On New Year’s Eve, after polling the authors, I suggested 1/14/13. Approximately twenty authors were on board. Two days later, that date was approved.

Two hours later, I was asked if we could move the date to February…now known as Hurdle #1.

I said that it would be ideal if there was any way to keep 1/14, but in the meantime I proposed 2/11…to Isabel only. I did not tell the authors that the 1/14 date was subject to change, holding out hope for as long as possible that it would not.

On 1/8, figuring I could wait no longer, I told the authors that 1/14 was being reconsidered. I asked them to please hold 2/11 as a backup. Astoundingly and luckily, seventeen of them still had that day available, too.

On 1/13, Isabel confirmed 2/11. I immediately notified the authors.

On 1/17, hoping that I would not be “too terribly upset,” Isabel reported that the superintendent asked if we could push back to later than 2/25. This was Hurdle #2.

As before, I held off on telling the authors—partly to keep group emails to a minimum, partly due to a weird mix of disappointment and hope.

And as before, I told Isabel that we would accommodate whatever works for the school, but pointed out that I feared that if we changed the date again, we would almost certainly lose participants who had already committed. It seemed statistically impossible that everyone would have a third proposed date free.

More to the point, in inferring understandable concerns, I sent Isabel an impassioned appeal revolving around this: “Our mission is to come and reinforce the challenging and critical work you are all doing every day and late into the night; we don't want to disrupt momentum but rather support it. We want to be part of the healing.”

For me, that night was fitful. On 1/18, Isabel called to say she had forwarded my email to the superintendent…who had then said we can keep the 2/11 date.



On 1/25, Isabel emailed me leading with the words “don’t panic.” She said that though the superintendent had approved the 2/11 assembly, word did not immediately reach the school…which had another event already scheduled for 2/11. Hurdle #3.

Of course I understood. What this community was going through is unfathomable to the rest of us. Still, I asked if the other event was smaller in scope and therefore possibly easier to shift. Thus began another tense period for me, but a relatively short one: by day’s end, I was relieved to hear that the other event could indeed be rescheduled and we could keep 2/11.

Rehearsals? Hah! Who needs them? Well, it would’ve been great, but it was hard enough getting everyone together for the actual show.

However, we were briefed on trauma guidelines. No loud or sudden noises. No flashes of light. No all-black outfits. And no mention of “healing.” We were already planning to leave that to the experts.

On 1/29, thanks to the logistical efforts of (my friend since fourth grade) Christian Campagnuolo and Jen Campbell, the design work of Tim Connor, and the production/printing by Balmar (all donated), we would have 1,700 bookmarks to distribute to every elementary student in Newtown.

Imagine this folded in half and laminated.

On 2/2, I spoke with Yvonne for the first time. She did not remember my message from 12/22; I did not expect her to. She was in the middle of an unenviable flurry of far more pressing issues.

It was so lovely to discover that Yvonne was as enthusiastic and easy to work with as Isabel. The three of us conferenced and refined the schedule I had proposed.

Then came Hurdle #4.

And this hurdle had a name.

On 2/8 into 2/9, the monster storm Nemo blanketed Connecticut.

Yet 2/8 was a Friday, and Yvonne had the foresight to set up the assembly the day before in case school was canceled—which, of course, it was. No matter, that meant that everything would be ready to go Monday morning.

Except we didn’t expect Hurdle #5.

On 2/10, as I was en route by bus from Maryland to New York (and literally a minute after I realized I had forgotten the flash drive with the master PowerPoint presentation on it), Yvonne emailed to warn me about the potential for a Monday school delay or even cancellation due to predicted icy conditions. Compounding the risk: Nemo was so big that, two days after, some streets were still unplowed (including the street of at least one participating author).

At about 5 p.m., as I was en route by train from New York to Connecticut
—so closeYvonne called with The News: school was indeed canceled.

I felt like the train had evaporated from under me.

Part 2 (with many photos).

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