But below that surface, the roots of elementary education as an omnibus civic good in American life run very deep, which helps explain why the post-Newtown trauma feels equally so.
“We have our greatest hope. And it lives in the school,” says Carolyn Mears, author and editor of an anthology entitled “Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma.” Her son was a sophomore at Columbine High School during the 1999 shootings, and the path she followed after that day led her to her current job as adjunct faculty at the University of Denver’s education college.
In “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory,” Jonathan Zimmerman asserts that the romantic imagery of one-room schools is an emblem of America right up “alongside the flag, eagle and Uncle Sam in the American patriotic pantheon.” The notion of the elementary school itself, he said this week, still serves the same purpose — these schools contain not only our young but the story of us.
“They’ve been this force in defining who we are,” he says. “They were really the first public building in most American communities. Not just a place where kids went to school but where citizens gathered for public purposes — weddings, funerals, religious worship, voting. There was no other place. The school was our place.”
Echoes of that sentiment remain, even though the world today is so, so different. Even as the details and execution of American elementary education divide us, the potent democratic vision of safe, universal public education still unites us.
And when people mourn the fallen young and educators of Newtown — as they did at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, at Jonesboro, at the Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa. — they are mourning, too, another notion: that one more American institution has been, through someone’s ugliness, forever sullied.
When Mears talked to people involved in previous school violence about what helped them recover, she found one very common theme: “that essence of community — the future, society, how we relate one to another.”
“That sense of location, sense of place, is profound,” she says. “And when that is torn away, when we find that we’re not living where we thought we lived, that this world is different, that the future is not what we thought it would be? Well, you have to rebuild it all.”
We like to call such a feeling a “loss of innocence” — and, in the past five days, the country has spoken of that often. But given the school’s place in the national imagination, isn’t it more the wounding of an ideal, of a possibility, of the promise of a bright future? And that, to Americans, is painful stuff indeed.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted