After six weeks of helping to plan an unprecedented 17-author variety show for Sandy Hook Elementary School, and while en route from Maryland to Connecticut on 2/10/13, the day before the event, I learned that school had been canceled for the following day.
One thing we had not arranged: a raindate. (Well, snowdate.)
With heavy heart, at 5:31 p.m., I emailed the authors. As the understanding responses came in, I tried to figure out how to proceed. I arrived at only one viable option. At 6:42 p.m., after clearing it with Sandy Hook librarian Yvonne Cech, I went back to the group to ask who could do Tuesday, 2/12.
Originally, eleven of the seventeen authors could. (On Monday afternoon, one dropped out, and Tuesday morning another did, both due to illness.) That number was plenty good enough for me; I worried that if I tried to find yet another date, even fewer would be free. I felt it was Tuesday or never.
So I seized Tuesday.
However, we’d worked out a schedule for seventeen so I scrambled to round up as many A-list pinch-hitters as I could. As before, just about everyone I asked would have liked to participate, but they got all “I’m super busy and generally speaking 24 hours is not enough notice to prepare multiple acts and arrange to travel two hours away.” I kid. They were extremely gracious, supportive, regretful. Most said to keep them in mind if I’m ever involved in another event like it. (I hope I am, just not under such circumstances.)
Sunday night yielded no one. But Monday morning, alas—three signed on: Daniel Kirk, Bruce Degen (who lives in Newtown), and Vincent X. Kirsch. Bless them.
Tuesday morning. Two days shy of two months since the tragedy. I drove the hour from where I was staying to Newtown, arriving at Chalk Hill School (where Sandy Hook is currently housed) at 8:30.
I was looking forward to hugging Yvonne and Isabel (Almeida, my United Way contact).
One of my biggest concerns was punctuality, but I needn’t have worried; all eleven other cast members arrived on time.
Tad Hills and Bob Shea in the nerve center
Tracy Dockray drawing Ramona
Tad Hills and Duck
I owe each thanks for so many other things and here are one or two per person:
- Katie Davis—For stepping up and going first when the original opening act (Phil Bildner) could not make the rescheduled date, and for podcasting the day.
- Bruce Degen—For stepping in at the last minute, and for being the hometown representative. (When I emailed him the schedule the day before—a schedule most of the rest had been familiar with for two weeks—he wrote back “The schedule is complicated.” He was right.)
- Tracy Dockray—For being a trooper when we determined (just before the show started) that I had not gotten the PowerPoint slides she emailed, and for recommending Vincent.
- Alan Katz—For reassuring me several days before that this was a worthwhile effort, and for making it back in time from a conference Denver despite Nemo.
- Daniel Kirk—For stepping in at the last minute even though his drive would be one of the longest, and for being the only one of us to play guitar, which I wish I could do.
- Vincent X. Kirsch—For adding one of the most diverse elements to the show—a toy theater—and for jumping on board less than a day before.
- Tad Hills—For being one of my partners at the second school, and for being the first to hug me goodbye. I needed that.
- Susan Hood—For being a cheerleader from the start, flexible and generous, and for being my partner in what was likely to be the most challenging aspect of the day: presenting to the first graders, the group most affected by the tragedy.
- Meghan McCarthy—For rearranging her work schedule more than once, for committing even though she’d be getting back from vacation the day before, and for providing one of the biggest laughs of the show: a YouTube clip of a (fake) flying car.
- Mike Rex—For being a class act through and through, from agreeing to stay an extra night in a hotel when Monday school was canceled to buying me a drink after.
- Bob Shea—For being true to his values, willing to make sacrifices to give a good show, and for closing us out with a wonderful sense of humor.
The eight authors who were in the 2/11 lineup but could not do the next day:
- Phil Bildner
- Sophie Blackall
- Peter Brown
- Brian Floca
- Ross MacDonald
- John Bemelmans Marciano
- Julia Sarcone-Roach
- Lauren Tarshis
We missed you all so very much, as did the kids. The school had made signs for each of us, which (along with our books) were displayed behind the performance space, so you were there in spirit in more ways than one.
First some of the authors visited with the kindergartners and first graders in their classrooms; we were told that these little ones were the most fragile, and not just because of their age. But if you walked in any of the rooms, you’d never know it. They reacted as kids that age do—they laughed, they called out, they got off subject, they were bursting with enthusiasm. They were, simply, precious.
At 10 a.m., we kicked off Sandy Hook’s first assembly since the tragedy—and possibly the first-ever author variety show. It was divided into two parts. Each 45-minute half featured six authors with back-to-back acts of approximately five minutes apiece, with a brief intermission so the audience could swap out (the room could not hold the entire 2nd through 4th grade at once). We kept it moving on schedule…mostly. When the second half ran long, everyone ran right along with us.
It was my first time as emcee. I introduced the show by saying the twelve authors and illustrators on hand had, combined, produced close to 500 books…but not all at the same time. I said we’d come in from four states bringing characters including the Magic School Bus, Batman, Ramona Quimby, Fangbone, Balto the hero dog, and Rocket the reading dog. (One of reasons I was bummed Peter Brown had to bow out at the last minute due to illness: I could’ve then included Chowder the Bouncing Dog. Rule of threes, baby.) I meant to joke that neither snow nor rain would have kept us from coming, but we are apparently not as powerful as postal workers and weather did sabotage Plan A.
I said the kids would see a side of us they might not expect. I suggested they think of it as Authors Got Talent.
I thanked the administration, staff, parents, and kids, and made special mention of my two pillars throughout this endeavor, Isabel and Yvonne. This was a significant group effort. Without their tireless help, it would have remained merely a vision.
Isabel Almeida, lavender shirt, Yvonne Cech
I announced our little gift: a bookmark for each student in Newtown. (Imagine it folded in half. And laminated.)
When I was up, I told the kids that it would be AWK-ward if I introduced myself, so I asked for a volunteer. Thank you again, Sam!
Tad Hills in action
Meghan McCarthy in action
Bob Shea in action
Meghan McCarthy, Daniel Kirk, Susan Hood,
Vincent X. Kirsch, Mike Rex, Rocco Staino
Vincent X. Kirsch, Yvonne Cech, Alan Katz, Bruce Degen,
Meghan McCarthy, Susan Hood
Vincent X. Kirsch, Tad Hills, Rocco Staino, and Daniel Kirk
join the audience
The variety show went gangbusters. The first time the kids erupted with laughter, I felt that attempting this had been a [sic] right thing to do.
After the show, we (and staff) enjoyed lunch generously donated by the PTA, signed books, posed for photos, and listened to Principal Donna Page’s touching thank you. She said she chose authors as the first assembly because she wanted the return to some form of normalcy to involve teaching, learning, and reading.
She gifted each of us a bracelet with an angel on it; a kind donor had sent many of these and Donna asked this donor if she could “pay it forward.” The donor agreed.
When Donna teared up, so did many of us, and it was time. I, for one, wanted a moment to let down any sign of a professional façade and be a lump-in-throat human being.
Katie Davis, Mike Rex, Daniel Kirk
Meghan McCarthy, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Mike Rex, Tracy Dockray
Alan Katz, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Tracy Dockray, Mike Rex,
Meghan McCarthy, Katie Davis
Meghan McCarthy, Katie Davis
People began to depart around 5 p.m. I was one of them, or so I thought. But then Yvonne, Mike Rex, Meghan McCarthy and I ended up staying. Yvonne opened up to us about what it was like on 12/14. It was hard to hear, but that doesn’t even come close to the edge of how hard it was for her to live through. We were in awe of her bravery and composure.
At 7 p.m., everyone left…but me.
I stayed behind to call my kids and tell them I love them.
Thank you to Rocco Staino, who sensitively covered the show for School Library Journal.
And a similar thank you to the Newtown Bee.
I will never be done singing the praises of Isabel and Yvonne. Both of them had to deliver dispiriting news to me multiple times, but each did it with candor and kindness (not to mention sorrow). Yet it didn’t take long for them to regroup and try to salvage whatever it was that had just (seemingly) fallen apart. Their patience with my persistence was inspiring.
It is to their great credit, and the credit of the superintendent and principal, that this event happened at all. I suspect even I would have declined the offer. Too big. Too soon. Too many bigger priorities.
The bookmark says “Authors Love Sandy Hook Elementary,” but who doesn’t?
En route home, I stopped at a Newtown restaurant for dinner and was still wearing the green/white ribbon the school gave each of us. The owner of the restaurant (who had no idea who I was, of course, or why I was there) came over, pointed to the ribbon, and said "Sandy Hook?" I said yes (without elaborating).
He shook my hand and simply said “Thank you.”
The day was precisely what I pitched it as: upbeat, funny, escapist. Yet for this one moment, I will depart from that tone. I heard the following song the week after the tragedy, and although it is about a romance, it amplified my tears. Listening to the lyrics now (particularly the first verse and the chorus), it seems even more fitting. You’ll hear what I mean.
Sandy Hook, we’d call again anytime, no matter how much planning. No matter how much snow.
No matter anything.