Reindeer on rooftops, dreidels and candles, the magic and miracles— these are the things of December, the traditions we treasure, the peace on earth and goodwill among men in our songs. Not the unfathomable horror of December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary. The shooting that day at Sandy Hook wrenched the heart of our nation. It haunts us still. Yet within that tragedy came remarkable acts of heroism by women dedicated to the children in their care.
One of the heroines of Sandy Hook is Kaitlin Roig, (DM, UConn), age 29, schoolteacher. We tell her story here as a tribute to her bravery.
That Friday morning Kaitlin’s first graders dipped their hands in green paint to make handprint wreaths which Kaitlin hung about the room to dry. On a back table sat cinnamon sticks and candy canes, ready to decorate gingerbread houses. For six years Kaitlin had taught first grade in this classroom, the one nearest the front door, the first someone would see upon entering Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
About 9:30 she reined the class into a circle for Morning Meeting, a calm time for the exuberant six-year-olds. While they were sharing family traditions, gunfire shattered the quiet. Rapid fire automatic gunshots—glass crashing at the front door—the sounds of a gunman forcing his way into the locked school.
Kaitlin jumped to close her door and switch off the overhead lights. The door key was in her desk across the room. No time to get it. She turned to the terrified children—they knew gunfire from video games—she pointed toward a corner and said, “Bathroom.”
“I’m a Nervous Nellie. I look under the beds at night,” Kaitlin told me at her house many weeks later. We sat on black and white chairs opposite each other when she wasn’t walking around, talking with her hands and arms. “I knew immediately this was gunfire. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Not at this school. My gut instinct said lockdown.” She paused in the telling to gaze out a window through trees to water in the distance. “Maybe angels said lockdown.”
As fast as she could, Kaitlin fitted 15 frightened children into a three-foot square bathroom with a toilet in the center. She stood one on the paper dispenser, four or five on the toilet, placed one astraddle the flusher, until all were crammed in. A huge storage cabinet stood against the adjacent wall so she slid it in front of the bathroom’s old wooden door. Squeezing behind it into the bathroom, she locked the door and cut off the light.
“Bad people are outside but good people will come,” Kaitlin whispered. “We’re going to be very quiet while we wait for the good people.”
“I can’t die today. Not before Christmas comes,” said one little boy. Another begged for his mother. The cramped space didn’t allow them to move. Kaitlin had to keep them quiet also. “We’re okay, I’m okay. Look at my face. I’m okay,” she whispered to hush their whimpers.
Then the toilet flushed.
Before she could react, gunfire erupted again, this time from the hall on the other side of the bathroom wall, only inches from where they cowered. “We heard all of it. Two people were murdered and we heard the sounds, their voices, the children heard all of it.”
For at least ten minutes more, gunfire thundered. “The sounds were torturous once they started, never stopped, just torturous,” Kaitlin said, shaking the memory from her head. “I thought we were going to die so I told the children how special they were to me and that I loved them. Teachers aren’t supposed to say those words but this was different. I wanted the last words each one heard to be ‘I love you.’”
For 45 minutes they hid in the near dark, clutching each other in essentially one long hug. After an eternity, they heard voices in the hall giving instructions. “Come this way. Close your eyes. Don’t look.”
Kaitlin thought the police were rescuing people but Nervous Nellie suggested the voices might be the gunmen taking hostages. She kept her children in hiding. Even so, they relaxed a little and when the toilet flushed a second time, everybody giggled.
Eventually someone pounded on the bathroom door. Kaitlin refused to open it even after the police officers put their badges under the door. If you’re the police, she told them, you’ll have the master keys. She held her breath, listening to one key after another trying the lock. Then the door swung open to a dozen officers. “That’s the moment I knew we’d been rescued.”
The police had been searching the entire Sandy Hook campus for her class, never considering that 15 children and an adult could be in a tiny bathroom.
She and the officers grabbed up the children and sprinted for the safety of the fire station up the road, just as she had practiced in a drill. “From the school to the firehouse was tunnel vision for me. I didn’t see blood, not anything. I had heard the sounds and felt sheer terror but I never saw anything.”
Even then, she didn’t know all that happened nor did she know when she spoke with ABC correspondent Diane Sawyer. She didn’t learn until the next day that the shooting was a random act. “It should have been my class. He murdered classrooms 2 and 3. Why would he have skipped mine?” The weight of her question registers on her face.
The answer lies in her quick action that spared her children, but the enormity of the tragedy overwhelms.
“Where did your courage—“
“No, not courage.” She shook her head. “I just didn’t want to die and I didn’t want those babies to die. I only did what came to me. I didn’t think.”
“Action in the face of danger? That’s courage,” I said.
“Anybody would do the same.”
Kaitlin may not recognize her own courage but others have hailed her heroism including news media the world over who want to tell her story. Hounded her, she says. She has turned them down, opting instead to speak to The Key. “It seems less public, just us Kappas,” she said, then shrugged her shoulders and smiled, acknowledging The Key’s 170,000 circulation.
“And I’m doing something exciting I’d like to let others know about. It came from the generous outpouring of gifts to our school. As I unpacked a huge box of games one day, I thought, what if we teach the students they must now do something for others?”
Thus Classes4Classes came about, a pay-it-forward nonprofit designed to teach children to care for others and to give to something bigger than themselves. Kaitlin has set up a website where a teacher tells how her class has learned the dreams of another class. Then viewers can contribute through PayPal to make those dreams come true. The website launches April 1 and she’d like Kappas, especially teachers, to check it out.
“We are not separate—we’re all connected. Teach children to give to someone else selflessly—they get nothing in return—I think that’s powerful,” she said.
C4C expands goals of Marathon Mondays, a running program Kaitlin began at Sandy Hook in 2011. A six-mile-a-day runner, Kaitlin challenged the elementary students to run a mile a week. While fitness was one goal, she stressed making the effort, being part of the team, including everyone, all practices that she feels important to instill.
“An immeasurable tragedy has happened and for me I have to do something to bring about positive change.” Kaitlin had been standing but she sat down to continue, leaning toward me, arms on her knees. “This isn’t about gun control or mental health. Crazy people will always get guns or knives or bombs. We need to start at the root of the problem and go back to being a society that cares about one another and treats people well and doesn’t leave people out. That’s my goal in Classes4Classes. That’s the answer to our basic problem.” Her voice was intense and she spoke with conviction.
Then she added, “And I want an armed policeman at every school. I want that protection.”
Kaitlin has not attended meetings nor allied with any issue or political group. She hasn’t set up pages or posted on Facebook or Twitter or authorized anyone else to do so in her name. She is aware of the false accusations and twisted attempts to use her for a political agenda. They anger her but she avoids confronting them. In fact, at this time she avoids anything upsetting, which includes the evening news.
“Baby steps,” she says about her recovery. “It took three weeks for me to know I was alive. Surreal. But I’m doing better now.” Family, her fiancée, and Kappa friends rushed to her side, never too many for Kaitlin, an only child who loves a crowd. Three Kappas in particular have been steadfast friends with Kaitlin since they met during recruitment in 2002, and they joined us on a Saturday afternoon while Nick, Kaitlin’s fiancé, stirred up a pot of chili in the kitchen. Three had held offices while the fourth majored in good times and they reminisced about college days. Kaitlin they described as an organizer and instigator.
“Kappa grounded me,” Kaitlin said. “UConn’s a big place and Kappa made it smaller while introducing me to so many people.”
“It got you your job,” said Kate Colbert Uber, former chapter president .
“Maybe so.” Kaitlin turned to me to explain. “Kappa inspired me to do better. I learned the value of studying.”
UConn’s School of Education accepted only 45 applicants in 2003 and Kaitlin was one of them. By the time she finished an accelerated Masters in 2006, her GPA topped 4.1 and she landed a job teaching reading. A year later she interviewed at Sandy Hook Elementary and discovered that the principal, Donna Page, was a Delta Mu Kappa sister. Despite fumbling through the Kappa handshake, Kaitlin got the job.
A much-respected principal, Donna Page retired in 2010, but she stepped in as interim principal after the shooting at Sandy Hook to finish out this school year.
Tulips and daffodils, butterflies, bunnies, the things of spring, decorate Kaitlin’s classroom now. The children anticipate summer vacations and share family traditions at Morning Meeting. Everyone strives to return to normal when normal has gone forever.
“It’s hard. A noise on the playground, backs stiffen, and tears flow. Sensitivity and regressive behavior. All to be expected. That’s normal right now. But children are resilient.”
It’s hard for the teachers also. “We’re numbers now, like Columbine, a part of history.” Tears well up in Kaitlin’s eyes and she blinks them away. All the teachers were heroic in her mind. “I take solace in being a positive change right now in as big a way as I can— in my classroom, the school or the world.”
The courage that just came to her, that allowed her to save the lives of fifteen children, fades into memory and a new kind of courage emerges—for Kaitlin and all the Shady Hook community—the courage to heal and to overcome.
[Reposted from The Key, the magazine of Kappa Kappa Gamma, Spring, 2013]