by Ted Anthony

AP National Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pick a public elementary school somewhere in the continental United States and draw a half-mile circle around it. The odds are reasonable that you’ll encounter some combination of the following:

BACK TO SCHOOL–A returning student smiles as his bus school bus pulls into Hawley School, Dec. 18, in Newtown, Conn. Classes resumed Tuesday for Newtown schools except those at Sandy Hook. Buses ferrying students to schools were festooned with large green and white ribbons on the front grills, the colors of Sandy Hook. At Newtown High School, students in sweatshirts and jackets, many wearing headphones, betrayed mixed emotions. Adam (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

A baseball field. A statue erected for war veterans. A municipal building. A community center. A polling place — probably the school itself. A library. A park. A basketball court crawling with kids playing pickup games.

In so many places, the school is the hub of civic life. Inside its walls, and around its grounds, are scattered the ideas and people and places that every day state the unspoken: When we talk of being American, this is what we mean.

It is for this reason that the excruciating saga of Newtown, Conn., has shaken the nation in a second way that is distinct from, yet of course related to, the actual death of so many young children.

Twenty-six lives ending so violently, so horrifyingly, is of course disruptive enough. But this event also disrupted the fundamental notion of what American community is. “Hurt a school and you hurt us all,” The Chicago Tribune editorialized this week.

HOLDING ON–Yesika Nieves holds onto her children Jessica Nieves, 6, and Giovanni Nieves, 8, as they look at angels placed into the soil around a tree during a candlelight vigil for those affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings Dec. 18, on Continental Square in York, Pa. The family was reading the names of victims written on the angels. Yesika says she was even more affected by the angels because one of the victims was also named Jessica, like her daughter. (AP Photo/York Daily Record, Kate Penn)

Americans have long had an unspoken social compact that says, hey — we build our lives around our schools because they’re the bedrock of a society that makes sense. Without the sense of a strong school system — and, by extension, a safe school system — the whole grid buckles. Schools, where you pledge allegiance to the flag and gaze upon portraits of George Washington, have formed on a local level the civic contours of who we are as a nation.

“It’s the place where you prepare to achieve the American dream — being president one day, going to outer space as an astronaut,” says El Brown, a former teacher and the mother of a kindergartner in Fairfax, Va. “Classrooms are supposed to be where we build our tomorrows.”

Schools are the field in which we farm our future. And when someone turfs that field so violently, leaving such chaos behind, it represents even more than the ugly notion of children dying violently. It feels, in some very visceral ways, like an act of war.

In remarks from the president on down during these jumbled days, the message comes through even when it’s not said directly: In killing the children of Sandy Hook, Adam Lanza effectively attacked the American nest. He went after not only our young but two other precious commodities — our sense of what we might become, and the stories we tell about who we are.

Not surprising, then, that many people used language like that of Richard Cantlupe, an American history teacher at Westglades Middle School in Parkland, Fla.: He called Newtown “our 9/11 for schoolteachers.”

The archetype of the American elementary school representing the idealized best in us is less potent than it used to be — or maybe ever was, “Leave It To Beaver” notwithstanding. At the very least, it’s under stress in the way that so many longstanding American institutions are.

Everything from population shifts to wrenching technological change have imbued the idea of “school” with a more elastic meaning. Home schooling numbers are rising and, judging from the conversations since Friday’s attack, may well rise even more.

There’s the issue of trust, too: In our divided society, schooling is as deeply politicized as anything else. Ask an active member of a teachers’ union and a fiscal conservative what public school means in America and you could get entirely different answers. And when we look to our insecurities about national direction and pride, what do we turn to but education metaphors? The “science gap.” The “math gap.”

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