By Kathy Swift, Mercy Associate
“We are going into a lock down. This is not a drill.”
The announcement from our assistant principal hurled me into what would become known as the Newtown Tragedy.
Moments later, the classroom door handle rattled. Holding my breath, I prayed it was security checking to see if I had locked the door, but I did not know if it was the perpetrator trying to get my freshmen English students. I knew my prayers sailed to heaven accompanied by others from the community, even before they knew of the event.
From my orientation as a Mercy Associate, I learned and came to believe that wherever one of us is, the community supports us. As the minutes in the darkness stretched to hours, my class of mostly boys struggled to stay silent as they sat, laid or crouched in the corner. We started to hear helicopters overhead. Images of police targeting a gunman reeled in my head. I never thought of press swooping down like predators. I looked at each student, knowing their parents had sent their most precious beings into my care. “Please, God, protect them. Let us get to the other side of whatever this is.”
In pieces through the remainder of the day we learned Adam Lanza had killed 20 students and six adults who protected them.
Almost as fast as the varied news reports traveled through cyberspace and radio airwaves, Mercy community reached out to me. The evening of December 14 was a Christmas tree decorating event at the Mercy Convent in Newington. I had many of the supplies, so I went with less than Christmas cheer in my heart. I met a sister and an associate in the parking lot. Immediately, they asked how I was, remembering where I worked. That was one of the most amazing parts of the days that followed: so many remembered that detail about me.
The outreach came by email from leaders of the Mercy community and sisters I see in a hall way occasionally to say hello to. In Catherine McAuley’s literary tradition, letters came from all over the Northeast. To open a “Healing Prayer” from a pair of Mercy women far away linked us in the pain and the belief in a better world that each Mercy strives to create. A hug from a sister as I dropped off Christmas presents, while she reminded her friends where I taught and the silence recognized words were superfluous.
One sister left a phone message every day – including noting that no response was required. She wanted me to know she was with me in the suffering. She knew the pain came in waves and was unpredictable. Teaching was no longer about the curriculum but about teaching resilience. There was no course laid out. I walked tentatively, knowing the community support would catch me when I fell.
Another sister gave autographed books about dealing with loss that I could give to those in need at the school.
Unique to the Mercy community support was the comfort with silence. The image of eleven bullets in one child was too horrific to trivialize by talking about it. So sometimes, when I was with sisters and associates for dinner or visiting, they understood my silence or my leaving the room when talk turned to the latest news of Sandy Hook.
Months have turned into a year. Newtown remains in the press. For me, a retreat at Mercy Center helped me to stop seeing the children dying in the classroom and transition them to heaven, together, joyful in new life with Jesus. We teachers are still finding our way. A student will come without homework because she had to go to the neighbors to remember a victim on her birthday and I remember to teach the whole student not the material for the state tests. I am blessed to have the model of the Mercy Sisters, Associates and Companions to follow and to try to be Mercy in a community that continues to need it.