Jenn Smith | Recess: A subject that never gets less heartbreaking to write about

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Editor's note: This column addresses the sensitive subject of school shootings. The SAMHSA Disaster Distress Hotline provides 24/7 access to trained crisis counselors for people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. If you need support, contact the free hotline as follows: call 800-985-5990; 800-846-8517 for TTY/hearing-impaired access; text `TalkWithUs' to 66746 or text `Hablanos' to 66746 to talk with someone in Spanish.

By Jenn Smith

The Berkshire Eagle

PITTSFIELD — I always feel restless this time of year, and it's not because of an unchecked holiday shopping list. Something much deeper continues to nag at me.

It was seven years ago that I was sitting here at my desk at The Eagle when I first heard the news of a school shooting: 20 children and six educators dead in Newtown, Conn.

Sadly even then, that phrase, "school shooting" — two words that should have never existed alongside one another — was nothing new to me.

I was 10 years old when a gunman opened fire on the Bard College at Simon's Rock campus in Great Barrington, some 28 miles south of my own home and elementary school in Dalton. I was 17 when two boys my age made the lethal decision to attack their own school community in Columbine, Colo., killing 13 people, including themselves, and wounding the psyches of countless others whether by shrapnel, trauma, fear, anger, sadness or all of the above. I was 25 when I found out 32 more students, faculty and staff had died in another campus shooting, this time at the university of Virginia Tech.

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I thought of all of this on the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, as I drove down Route 8 into Connecticut. At the time, The Eagle had a sister paper, the New Haven Register, and their staff needed all the help they could get to unravel all that led up to that horrific morning of bloodshed in elementary school classrooms. Myself and a former colleague, Adam Poulisse, never hesitated in taking on the assignment. What we took for granted was how our lives would never be the same.

The facts will always lead you to the "who," "what" "where," "when" and "how." But it's the "why ... why ... why ..." that's forever haunting and taunting you as you dig and question your way through what feels like a bottomless pit of police reports and policy reforms drowning in the din of the gun lobby and anti-violence activists, mixed with the deluge of sobs and stories told through the choked throats at funerals and candlelight vigils.

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While in New Haven and Newtown, my job was to put together breaking news profiles on Principal Dawn Hochsprung and 7-year-old Daniel Barden, among other stories. We never met, but this time of year especially, Daniel and Dawn will forever be on my mind.

I am forever grateful to North Adams Superintendent Barbara Malkas for helping me characterize the dedication and bravery of the 47-year-old mother who died while trying to overtake the person attacking her students. "Dawn was just one of those amazing educators who was just extremely committed and really passionate about her work," Malkas told me.

Daniel, a beautiful freckled-faced redhead, was so loved that his father blogged about him even before he was born. I remember it being the middle of the night, less than 24 hours after the shooting, that Mark Barden emailed me back with a statement from his family about their son and little brother. "Daniel was fearless in his pursuit of happiness and life. He earned his ripped jeans and missing two front teeth," they wrote.

Two summers ago, I finally met Mr. Barden and his family when they attended Berkshire Theatre Group's production of "Church & State." Mark and his daughter, Natalie, spoke on a panel with Gregory Gibson, whose son Galen, 18, died in the Simon's Rock shooting. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred 20 years to the day, after the shooting at Simon's Rock.

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Both fathers have become outspoken activists regarding gun violence, avenging their sons' deaths in their own ways — at times very similar and others very different.

I waited in line after the play like I was going to confession, like somehow telling Mr. Barden who I was would bring me peace, or solutions to school shootings. I still have neither. For us, and many others whose lives have been affected directly or indirectly by these heinous acts, the holidays will never be the same.

"Hi," I said when that face-to-face moment came. "You don't know me, but five years ago I had to write about your son, and I really wanted to thank you for taking the time at the worst time to email me back about him. I'm so sorry."

We looked at each other briefly, both with teary eyes and minds weary, maybe both questioning why we're still having to have these kinds of conversations.

"Thank you," he said, shaking my hand. "I'm so sorry you had to write that, too."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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