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Pick a public elementary school somewhere in the continental United States and draw a half-mile circle around it. The odds are reasonable that you’ll encounter some combination of the following:
A baseball field. A statue erected for war veterans. A municipal building. A community center. A polling place — probably the school itself. A library. A park. A basketball court crawling with kids playing pickup games.
In so many places, the school is the hub of civic life. Inside its walls, and around its grounds, are scattered the ideas and people and places that every day state the unspoken: When we talk of being American, this is what we mean.
It is for this reason that the excruciating saga of Newtown, Conn., has shaken the nation in a second way that is distinct from, yet of course related to, the actual death of so many young children.
Twenty-six lives ending so violently, so horrifyingly, is of course disruptive enough. But this event also disrupted the fundamental notion of what American community is. "Hurt a school and you hurt us all," The Chicago Tribune editorialized this week.
Americans have long had an unspoken social compact that says, hey — we build our lives around our schools because they’re the bedrock of a society that makes sense. Without the sense of a strong school system — and, by extension, a safe school system — the whole grid buckles. Schools, where you pledge allegiance to the flag and gaze upon portraits of George Washington, have formed on a local level the civic contours of who we are as a nation.
"It’s the place where you prepare to achieve the American dream — being president one day, going to outer space as an astronaut," says El Brown, a former teacher and the mother of a kindergartner in Fairfax, Va. "Classrooms are supposed to be where we build our tomorrows."
Schools are the field in which we farm our future. And when someone turfs that field so violently, leaving such chaos behind, it represents even more than the ugly notion of children dying violently. It feels, in some very visceral ways, like an act of war.
In remarks from the president on down during these jumbled days, the message comes through even when it’s not said directly: In killing the children of Sandy Hook, Adam Lanza effectively attacked the American nest. He went after not only our young but two other precious commodities — our sense of what we might become, and the stories we tell about who we are.
Not surprising, then, that many people used language like that of Richard Cantlupe, an American history teacher at Westglades Middle School in Parkland, Fla.: He called Newtown "our 9/11 for schoolteachers."
The archetype of the American elementary school representing the idealized best in us is less potent than it used to be — or maybe ever was, "Leave It To Beaver" notwithstanding. At the very least, it’s under stress in the way that so many longstanding American institutions are.
Everything from population shifts to wrenching technological change have imbued the idea of "school" with a more elastic meaning. Home schooling numbers are rising and, judging from the conversations since Friday’s attack, may well rise even more.
There’s the issue of trust, too: In our divided society, schooling is as deeply politicized as anything else. Ask an active member of a teachers’ union and a fiscal conservative what public school means in America and you could get entirely different answers. And when we look to our insecurities about national direction and pride, what do we turn to but education metaphors? The "science gap." The "math gap."
But below that surface, the roots of elementary education as an omnibus civic good in American life run very deep, which helps explain why the post-Newtown trauma feels equally so.
"We have our greatest hope. And it lives in the school," says Carolyn Mears, author and editor of an anthology entitled "Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma." Her son was a sophomore at Columbine High School during the 1999 shootings, and the path she followed after that day led her to her current job as adjunct faculty at the University of Denver’s education college.
In "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," Jonathan Zimmerman asserts that the romantic imagery of one-room schools is an emblem of America right up "alongside the flag, eagle and Uncle Sam in the American patriotic pantheon." The notion of the elementary school itself, he said this week, still serves the same purpose — these schools contain not only our young but the story of us.
"They’ve been this force in defining who we are," he says. "They were really the first public building in most American communities. Not just a place where kids went to school but where citizens gathered for public purposes — weddings, funerals, religious worship, voting. There was no other place. The school was our place."
Echoes of that sentiment remain, even though the world today is so, so different. Even as the details and execution of American elementary education divide us, the potent democratic vision of safe, universal public education still unites us.
And when people mourn the fallen young and educators of Newtown — as they did at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, at Jonesboro, at the Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa. — they are mourning, too, another notion: that one more American institution has been, through someone’s ugliness, forever sullied.
When Mears talked to people involved in previous school violence about what helped them recover, she found one very common theme: "that essence of community — the future, society, how we relate one to another."
"That sense of location, sense of place, is profound," she says. "And when that is torn away, when we find that we’re not living where we thought we lived, that this world is different, that the future is not what we thought it would be? Well, you have to rebuild it all."
We like to call such a feeling a "loss of innocence" — and, in the past five days, the country has spoken of that often. But given the school’s place in the national imagination, isn’t it more the wounding of an ideal, of a possibility, of the promise of a bright future? And that, to Americans, is painful stuff indeed.
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