After living through the nightmare of gun massacre, in which 20 children and 6 adults have been killed, can a person possibly move forward with their life?
According to Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, the answer is yes – you can.
Kaitlin, 32, was teaching her first grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, USA on December 14, 2012—when a gunman went on a rampage and shot 26 people dead.
By quickly helping her first grade children to squueze into a 3-foot-by-4-foot toilet cubicle, shutting the door, and keeping them quiet until help arrived, the quick-thinking teacher saved 15 young lives.
Kaitlin has just released a book titled Choosing Hope, about her experiences.
It focusses not only her memories of that horrific day, but more importantly, on how she has been able to heal.
The Horror Of December 14, 2012
In an interview with Hope Media, Kaitlin said her classroom was very close to where the gunman first opened fire.
“Where the shooting began, as he shot his way into our school through a window, was mere feet from where my six- and seven-year-old students and I were sitting,” she said.
“And so when we heard that initial blast of gunfire, it was very evident what we were hearing, at least to me as an adult.
“There was not a second of hesitation, a moment of wonder. I knew what it was, and I knew that our only option at attempting to survive, was hiding. That was our only chance.”
The only hiding place available was a single-stall bathroom built for a small child. Kaitlin closed the classroom door, turned off the lights, and ushered her students into the bathroom. Piling them onto and around the toilet and the toilet paper holder, she positioned them until she could close the toilet door, and then helped them to remain quiet.
“In that moment, the impossible needed to become possible and by the grace of God it did,” she said.
Staying Calm In The Midst Of Terror
Kaitlin – pictured above with her students in a photo by Glamour magazine – told Hope Media that it was sheer instinct, tied to her responsibility for the children, that enabled her to stay calm.
“I was in charge of them,” she said. “They were my responsibility. And as a human, I wanted to survive. I wanted to live. I wanted to see my fiancé, my family and my friends. And first-graders, especially at six and seven years of age, they follow modelling. So I was very aware that if I did not appear to be cool, calm and collected, that it would be utter chaos and we would have no chance.
“There was very little talking, because we were on the other side of a cinderblock to a madman. We were not removed from this; we were in the centre of it.
“But the conversations that were had; One was when one of my students started to cry. I knew that could be a trigger for all of my students to start crying. And that could not happen.
“So I took her face in my hands and I just said, “Show me your smile”, and I smiled at her. And so eventually she stopped crying and just was quiet again.”
“I Really Don’t Want To Die Today, Miss Roig”
“One of my students said, “I really want to celebrate Christmas this year Miss Roig.” So I said “I know and you will, we’re all going to have Christmas. [Another] said, “I really really don’t want to die today Miss Roig”, and I said “I know. We’re ok”.
“It was really just a lot of reassurance, even though I didn’t believe any of it. Because I’m in charge. I’m their teacher. And I’m the only one who in that moment could tell them it was going to be OK.”
Kaitlin told a local Connecticut paper that she also fixed her mind on her fiancé, and the wedding dress she’d just bought, and prayed with the children that they would survive.
Beginning The Journey Of Healing From Painful Memories
For Kaitlin, there were many questions following that horrific day, many of them beginning with the word, “Why?” But her healing began when she put those questions aside.
“It was just days of endless whys,” she said. “And I realised eventually I was never going to answer the whys. I just wasn’t. And for myself, the healing process began the day I let go of trying to answer them, because I’m never going to.
“We all go through really hard times. And I think for so many of us, we try so hard to answer questions which we’re never going to. And we forget that there’s so many questions we can answer. Focussing our energy on questions we can answer, can actually lead us to healing.”
The questions Kaitlin focussed on instead, were, “How do I make sure this day doesn’t define myself and my students”, and “How do we get our control back?”
“The day I started shifting my energy to focussing on those two questions, was the day I started to move forward.”
“You Don’t Have To Pretend It Didn’t Happen”
Despite the horrific memories of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, Kaitlin has chosen to not let the memories rule her, but instead chooses each day to live her life fully.
“I will never, not one day in my life, move on from December 14,” she said. “It is wholly a part of me. It’s every second of every day. However, every day of my life I will move forward. Because I have to, and because I can.
“You don’t have to pretend like whatever has happened to you didn’t happen.”
“I think that’s probably a distinction that a lot of people who have lived through trauma and tragedy can relate to.
“You don’t have to pretend like whatever has happened to you didn’t happen, like you weren’t affected by it, that it doesn’t make you cry, that you don’t break down, that some days aren’t really hard. I think that’s being human, and I think that’s being real, and I think it’s important in the healing process, to not just try to push it down.
“But that doesn’t mean that you can’t move forward, because you absolutely can.”
Helping Others Recover From Tragedy
In speaking to people about her own experiences, Kaitlin has been able to help many move forward from their own tragedy.
“When I started speaking to audiences, people wanted to connect their pain to mine,” she said.
“Whatever their own pain was: the death of a son, cancer diagnosis, a tragic suicide… they said I had reminded them, that it was a choice how to move forward from their own pain.”
“What seems insurmountable in your life, absolutely does not have to be. You can proceed forward from it.”
Her book encourages readers that their darkest days don’t have to define them.
“Choosing Hope is a lifeline to anyone going through darkness to know that they can absolutely find the light,” she said.
“That it is a choice. And it is a choice I would encourage anyone to make—that what seems insurmountable in your life, absolutely does not have to be. You can proceed forward from it. I am proof of that. And I truly hope that that is what every single reader will come to know for themselves, for their own personal journey.”
The Wisdom Of Seven-Year-Old Children
Kaitlin told Hope Media that she learnt much from her students, particularly a few weeks after the massacre, when they started receiving gifts of support from the community.
She watched their eyes light up as she talked to them about the importance of giving, and they began to daydream about how they could not just receive gifts, but pass on encouragement and gifts to others.
“My kids were way more excited about the prospect of giving back, of reaching out, of helping, than they were about the gifts they had just been given,” she said.
“As their teacher that was the greatest moment. Because I realised that not even a month after they’d had their own darkest day – at six or seven years old – of just unimaginable despair, they were able to say, “We want to help someone. We want to make someone feel loved.”
“And that’s the greatest gift they could’ve ever given me.”
How Second-Grade Kids Helped Start A Charity
That lightbulb moment led to the formation of a charity Kaitlin now runs, called “Classes For Classes” – a social network connecting teachers and their classes with others, to share gifts and resources. The charity is supported by crowd funding.
The aim is to teach children the power of kindness, and their ability to create positive change. Kaitlin believes that by teaching empathy, children will have “no room for hate”.