The community of Roseburg, Oregon, is still reeling after last week's shooting at Umpqua Community College. Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis knows what it's like to try to move forward after experiencing an unspeakably tragic and violent incident.
Three years ago, she was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary school when an armed gunman took the lives of twenty students and six adults.
Roig-DeBellis and her class survived by crowding into a tiny bathroom. Afterward, she had not only her own recovery to think of, but that of her students, as well.
Roig-DeBellis founded the organization "Classes 4 Classes" as a result of her experience. The organization partners different classrooms around the country, and each one donates a gift of needed or wanted items.
Roig-DeBellis writes about her journey in her new book (written with Robin Gaby Fisher) "Choosing Hope: Moving Forward from Life's Darkest Hours," and speaks with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson on overcoming the grief and turmoil after tragedy.
Interview Highlights: Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis
On whether she thinks the Oregon shooting could have been avoided
"I'm so grateful that in our nation right now we're having the discussion, and that those conversations are being had because they are so important and truly crucial. As a teacher though, my expertise isn't in knowing what the answer is or what should be done, my focus is on making sure the kids are successful. That's what I know how to do."
On her political stance on gun control
"It's clear that I'm saying that there is a problem and something needs to be done. Where I draw the line is thinking I'm the expert in knowing what that is or how it should be solved because I'm certainly not ... I am in favor of smart gun sense. I am in favor of awareness and of working very hard to change that climate."
On the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting
"My classroom was the first in the school. So at around 9:30 in the morning, my kids and I were sitting in our morning meeting as we do every day. We had just greeted one another and just finished listening to the Oklahoma version of 'Oh, What A Beautiful Morning' when very loud rapid fire shots began over, and over, and over. My class was feet from where this was happening, and so I knew immediately that we were in imminent danger, and that time is of the essence, and that our chance at survival was hiding."
We had just greeted one another and just finished listening to the <em>Oklahoma</em> version of ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Morning’ when very loud rapid fire shots began over, and over, and over.
On what she told the children
"There wasn't a ton of talking because obviously noise meant that, you know, that evil could come closer to us. So we did remain very quiet, but I did not want what they were hearing in that hallway and on the other side of our classroom wall to be the last thing they heard. So I told them that I was so grateful to be their teacher, how lucky I was to have them in our class and that I love them very much. I mean, I had to step in there in that moment and make sure that they heard something loving."
On moving forward
"Well, it was awful. It was awful for days and what happened was after living in that state for a couple of weeks of not being able to go in public – not a gas station, not a grocery store, not being able to be home alone, not being able to be in the dark. It was really incredibly infuriating. At the same time I was very much trying to answer the whys: why did this happen? Why our school? And what I came to find was that I was never going to answer those whys. Not then, not now, not ever, and that instead I needed to focus my energy on questions that could be answered and for myself there were two: How do I make sure this day does not define my students and myself? And the second was, how do we get our control back because it was taken from us on that day? And those two questions led me on my path of healing. You know, I say all the time I will never, never move on from December 14th, but every day I will move forward and I think that’s a really important distinction for anyone going through a really hard time.”
Book Excerpt: 'Choosing Hope'
By Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis
"It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then."
—Alice, to the Cheshire Cat, in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
I live every day wishing I could go back to December 13, back to who I was, who my kids were, back to our school with those who were taken on that day and the life I would never in a million years have changed.
Sometimes I wonder how all of this happened. How, after finding myself in the midst of such abject darkness, in a place where breaking free seemed unlikely, if not impossible, I was finally able to get to the light. Did my strong faith play a role in my passage from that unimaginable tragedy? Yes, it did. Did the love of my family and friends and the support of a caring community bolster me as I attempted to put one foot in front of the other in the days and weeks afterward? Of course. But what saved me, when I dropped to my lowest point and wandered aimlessly between feelings of sadness and fear and maddening frustration over not being able to answer the "Why?" of what happened, was the moment I realized I had a choice. I could allow the actions of a monster to crush my spirit and, for the rest of my life, have that terrible day in Newtown define me. Or I could decide that, even in the wake of such unspeakable malice, I could live a purposeful life by choosing hope.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was the worst mass murder of schoolchildren in the United States since the Bath School bombing in 1927, and a mournful chapter in our country's narrative. I'll leave it to others to write the historical account of that day. I'll tell my story, but on my terms. I will not be exploitative: anyone who is looking for that should reach for a different book. I will bear witness to the trauma my students and I suffered, and, even more significantly, the acts of heroism that day, and the generosity of others that poured into our broken community afterward. I leave it to readers to decide whether they even want to read, in the section titled "My Darkest Hour," about what we endured. You need not read those particular pages in order to capture the message of hope that I intend to convey with this book. I write about my personal experience for the purpose of clarity and perspective. It is that which led me to the path I walk today.
Six of my colleagues and twenty first-graders — six- and seven-year-olds who were still learning to tell time, and count to 120, and spell 100 words — were murdered that morning. Teachers and administrators and support staff and children who acted with great courage in the face of death. By the grace of God, my students and I survived. When the shooting began and the killer stalked down the hallway toward our classroom, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake, I stuffed my frantic students into a first-grade bathroom that was too tiny for one adult and told them to stay perfectly quiet. I was certain we were going to die.
I won't say the shooter's name. I never have. The only names that need to be memorialized are the innocent children and educators whose lives he took. To this day, I believe the killer came into our classroom, which was the first one in the hallway, and, thinking it was empty, moved to the next classroom, and the next, shooting everyone he saw. I'll never know for sure.
When you hear the whisper of death, life takes on a different meaning. Not a moment passes when I don't recognize that it could have been us who didn't make it out of the school that day. That all of my students and I did get out alive is, in my mind, nothing short of a miracle. I honor that miracle by not taking anything for granted. Not a beautiful sunset, or the gentle sensation of a loved one's hand reaching for mine, or the sweet sound of a child's voice, or a kind word from a stranger. Not for a second.
Because we survived, I must live up to my responsibility to those who were silenced by using my voice to share what I have learned from standing at the precipice of death and, in doing so, making sure that day is not forgotten. Had it been my kids and me who were taken, I would have wanted someone to use his or her voice for good and to carry on the legacy of love and benevolence that, before evil visited, was the story of Sandy Hook.
In the weeks after the shooting, I waded through my sorrow, wondering if I would ever feel joy again. I spent every day asking myself, Why our school? Why innocent children? When the answers wouldn't come, I became increasingly frustrated and angry. Until, one day, I realized I would never answer those questions and I needed to concentrate on the ones I could answer, for the sake of both my students and me. Only then could we begin healing. Two questions guided me: How do I make sure that the deeds of a madman do not prevent us from moving forward to live good and meaningful lives? And how do we gain back the sense of control that he took from us? Those two questions led me in everything I did. Rather than consuming myself with the horror of what happened, I began focusing on the good that could be done, and how I might take part in our collective healing.
When I changed my thinking, I was able to see opportunities. I founded a nonprofit called Classes 4 Classes, a concept to teach students everywhere the importance of kindness and caring for others. In my capacity as a survivor, I was asked to speak to a group of educators, which I reluctantly accepted. I started my presentation by sharing my story of hope and saw the impact it had on the audience. One speaking engagement led to dozens. Following every appearance, people came up to me to share their personal struggles — "I was just diagnosed with cancer"; "I lost my husband"; "My son is going through a difficult time" — and to thank me for inspiring them to focus on the possibilities rather than the negativity in their lives. They would often begin by saying things such as "I know this is nothing like what you've been through" or "My struggle can't compare with yours," and I would stop them each time and say, "Pain is pain and sadness is sadness and loss is loss and we are all connected in this."
After a few of these encounters, I decided that if, by sharing my personal story, I could help even one person through his or her darkest hour, then that was what I needed to do. I quickly realized that helping them was healing me. Sharing my message of hope became my calling. So when I was approached about writing a book, something that had never crossed my mind, I decided to seize the opportunity to be able to reach even more people.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School I knew closed its doors for good after the shooting. Our beautiful school is dust now, razed to the soil because what it came to represent was too painful for a community to bear. And while teaching is at the core of who I am, my new classroom is wherever life takes me — to elementary schools, and teacher conferences, and college commencements, and anywhere else I am asked to speak.
In my travels and, now, with my book, my purpose is to convey the importance of gratitude and endurance and, most of all, the power of choice. Yes, especially that. I know now that how you deal with life's challenges, even those that may seem unbearable or hopeless, is your choice to make. Bad things happen to all of us, things that test us and impact us and change us, but it is not those moments that define who we are. It is how we choose to react to them that does. You can give in and give up or you can decide to live your life with intent and love and compassion for others and for yourself. You can choose hope, even in the darkest hour, and in that choice you will find light. We have that power. I do. You do. Everyone does. That is what I believe.
Ever since I was a little girl and my mom introduced me to Robert Frost, I have loved the poem "The Road Not Taken." In that poem, Frost famously wrote,
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
When I reached a crossroads in my journey back from that terrible day in 2012, I chose hope. And that has made all the difference.
My name is Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis and this is my story.
Excerpted from the book CHOOSING HOPE by Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis. Copyright © 2015 by Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis. Reprinted with permission of G.P Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
- Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, former Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher, motivational speaker and author of "Choosing Hope: Moving Forward From Life's Darkest Hours." Her organization tweets @Classes4Classes.
This segment aired on October 6, 2015.