Penkava: The day we all became Connecticut

Just a few weeks ago, if you mentioned Connecticut, all that came to mind was a state in New England. Those of us who are good at trivia maybe knew that’s where Yale University is located. Perhaps there’s someone among us who might even recall that Mark Twain lived his later years there. But that was the Connecticut of a few weeks ago.

Now you mention Connecticut, and all that comes up is a lump in your throat. There’s nothing about geography or higher education or famous authors. Just a thick, heavy, impassible swelling of sadness and hurt. It’s a lump that words cannot breach and tears cannot dissolve.

The inescapable watermark of Connecticut has bleached a bit of color out of all of our lives. We’re all a little bit more faded, a little bit more worn, a little bit more tattered. Sure, we’re still recognizable. It’s just that we’ve become a little more emotionally threadbare as we cope with another collective heartbreak.

I suppose each of us move in and out of such events at our own depth and speed. For me, being a former elementary school teacher, Connecticut carried me back to my days in the classroom with my children.

I recalled something that happened years ago. Our school had an alert that was called “Code Red.” This condition was initiated when there was a possible threat to the school and the children. Well, there was an incident close to our school that concerned the police enough to notify our school. Suddenly, we went Code Red. Not given any details, all we teachers knew was that there was a real threat and this was no drill, so we quickly followed procedure.

I recall telling my children to move to the far corner of the classroom and sit on the floor. I locked my door, closed the window blinds, and turned off the lights. That was the easy part.

Now I had to keep the children occupied and ease their fears. This was no easy task as you are faced with 27 wide-eyed third-graders staring at you in the dark. They are scary enough in the light.

I decided to distract them with some stories of my childhood. Like the time when I was in first grade and accidentally pulled the school’s fire alarm because I thought it was light switch. Or the time my friend and I successfully launched mice in mini-parachutes from the top of the ski jump in Fox River Grove.

As the children sat listening to my stories, I could see that they were feeling less and less apprehensive. But, I must admit, I was not. All through the tales of my youthful foolishness, I kept thinking about one thing: What would I do if someone came crashing through my door? How would I protect my kids?

Somehow I knew that I would have to put myself in between them and the bad guy. I prayed that I would have the courage to do that. So I continued to tell my stories and the kids sat there and chuckled, but my imagination ran wild through scenarios of how I would save my children.

Suddenly there was an announcement over the intercom that the Code Red had ended and we could go back to our normal activities. No bad guy crashing through my door. No rushing toward him with only me between a bullet and my kids. No fear of never seeing my family again. Now it was just another time to teach social studies.

But after that, I always wondered if the parents really knew what we teachers were prepared to do for their kids. That we’d put ourselves in harm’s way to protect them. No matter what. Then Connecticut happened, and now, well, I guess we all know.

No, Connecticut is not only about noble teachers. It’s about cherishing what we have at this very moment. It’s about showing infinite love in a finite lifetime. And it’s about how quickly we all become one when sorrow becomes our national common denominator.

Connecticut. It used to be just hard to spell. Now it’s impossible to forget.

• Michael Penkava used to be a teacher. He could only hope he would have been like one from Connecticut. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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