LISTEN LIVE: Loading...

Advertisement

 

The lessons I learned at Sandy Hook Elementary

The author on her first day of school at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 2000, Newtown, CT. (Courtesy Ayesha Dholakia)
The author on her first day of school at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 2000, Newtown, CT. (Courtesy Ayesha Dholakia)

There were nine words etched on the door of my elementary school, a school motto that I read every morning: “Think you can, work hard, get smart, be kind.” I recalled that message a decade ago, when I was 19 years old and watching that same school — Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. — on TV, as I waited for my sister to come home. The shooter was initially rumored to be inside our high school, where my sister was, but he went to the elementary school instead.

My elementary school. The one in which we grew up, learned to read and to multiply, sang about dinosaurs and the 50 nifty United States. The shooter’s house sat behind mine. That day, we sat as yellow tape surrounded our neighborhood, declaring it a crime scene. I clung to the thought that these headlines couldn’t be real — it was just a mistake, a drill gone horribly awry — repeating it even as the numbers went from two dead to five to 10, 20, 26. I stared at the news for hours, my mom and I not speaking, as our home started “trending” on Twitter, and we frantically texted everyone we knew at the school. My sister came home, and we slept in our parents’ room that night, knowing that in the morning we would have to face a world in which our sense of safety was irreversibly stolen. We woke up to 26 families still broken, families we knew, the unthinkable not a nightmare.

In the 10 years since, the unthinkable has happened again, and again, begging the question: when did the murder of innocent children no longer qualify as unthinkable?

Sandy Hook’s motto is written on a small sign in my bedroom. I see these words each morning and evening, bookends to my day, writes Ayesha Dholakia. (Courtesy Ayesha Dholakia)
Sandy Hook’s motto is written on a small sign in my bedroom. I see these words each morning and evening, bookends to my day, writes Ayesha Dholakia. (Courtesy Ayesha Dholakia)

In the weeks after, I felt confused, angry, and empty, but I left home to try and find my purpose. Prior to the shooting, I had already scheduled a 3-month internship in Boston with a pediatric neurosurgeon, so, instead of returning to my college community, I entered an unfamiliar city of strangers. Those around me were naïve to the weight I carried every day, asking the seemingly innocuous question that you ask of strangers: “Where are you from?” I dreaded it. My response was met with looks of pity, shock or indifference, the latter an incomprehensible signal to me that they ascribed no significance to the name of my hometown. Every look angered me, because none erased the tragedy. None fixed it.

What had happened was too unfathomable for me to not think that I could help change the narrative. Ultimately, Sandy Hook sparked my passion for working with children, with a focus on helping address the effects of trauma. After college I worked in foster care, partnering with families at their most vulnerable. True to Sandy Hook’s motto, I believed, and I worked hard. And ultimately, I became a doctor, a pediatrician.

I dove into mental health awareness before ultimately recognizing the importance of policy and dismantling systemic racism in eliminating violence. While my hometown made headlines, my grief was not unique. I “got smart,” and I learned that it’s not by chance that young Black males are more than 20 times more likely to be killed than their white peers; it is the direct result of inequitable actions and inaction that require novel, community-centric solutions.

I still feel the bottom drop out when a headline on the next shooting pops up on my phone, or when “Sandy Hook” is part of a news update.

There have been many moments in the past decade when I’ve wavered in the belief that what I do is making a difference. I am burned out, navigating myriad epidemics, and it is really, really hard. In medical school, I saw children with gunshot wounds come through our emergency room again, and again, and I’d go home to another shooting on TV, and then another. Despite the relentlessness of it all, I need to believe my work has helped at least one child, giving them a voice when so many have lost theirs.

Sandy Hook taught us to be kind, and the overwhelming kindness within our community in the tragedy’s aftermath drove me to medicine, illuminating the power of compassion to heal. In clinic recently, I saw a happy, smiling 4-year-old for a routine checkup. I learned that her uncle had just been killed by a gun, and the day before, her cousin was shot at school. Now, she cries each night out of fear. I looked at her mom, her face etched with resilience but lacking surprise, and I attempted to mirror hers, masking the defeat I felt.

A mosaic mural inside the new Sandy Hook Elementary School; photo taken by the author in 2016, on a tour of the school prior to its opening to students. Newtown, CT. (Courtesy Ayesha Dholakia)
A mosaic mural inside the new Sandy Hook Elementary School; photo taken by the author in 2016, on a tour of the school prior to its opening to students. Newtown, CT. (Courtesy Ayesha Dholakia)

Each time I hear another of my patients has been touched by a gun, I feel a personal sense of failure. Despite having witnessed this loss, I haven’t been able to prevent it from happening to others. Despite having gone into a profession meant to save children, these families prove I can’t do that. I can’t pretend this monster isn’t real or save them from the very possible reality that the child in front of me is more likely to be shot and killed than die from pneumonia, or cancer, or any number of illnesses whose lethality we have so long recognized and prevented against. So, I sit with them and listen, hoping that if nothing else, I can give them this act of kindness.

It has been a full decade since the shooting. I’ve gone from a child myself to treating children. A full decade — and gun violence is now the top cause of death in children. I still feel the bottom drop out when a headline on the next shooting pops up on my phone, or when “Sandy Hook” is part of a news update. It still takes me a second to not get dragged down by the useless wishes that this had never happened. It did happen. And it will continue to happen until we stop it.

Now, Sandy Hook’s motto — “think you can, work hard, get smart, be kind” — is written on a small sign in my bedroom. I see these words each morning and evening, bookends to my day. I am a doctor, but I am also still 19 years old, watching my world shatter.

My goal is to become a pediatric emergency medicine physician with a focus on injury prevention. And yet, I wish that firearm violence wasn’t my passion. I wish I cared about it simply because it’s important, and not because the mere mention of the word “gun” makes my heart race.

I hope to impact children such that they have time to create their own stories, to work hard, get smart, and be kind and to, above all, think they can live in a world where they don’t need to hide under desks or in closets; a world where these horrors are never more than bad dreams.
 
Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Related:

Ayesha Dholakia Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Dr. Ayesha Dholakia is a resident physician in pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital. 

More…

Advertisement

 
Play
Listen Live
/00:00
Close