I grew up in the heart of Buffalo, and still consider myself a Buffalo girl though I have not experienced a breeze off the lake for a whole summer or a sustained blast of nail-hard cold for 34 years. But there were many visits and, since my parents both passed away several years ago, many memories.
Watching the massacre of 6- and 7-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., evoked powerful memories of my school days in Buffalo, which were filled with freedom, independence and absolutely no consciousness that anyone would hurt us in school. After all, in my grammar school days at St. Matthew’s, we had the Sisters of St. Joseph protecting us, throwing erasers at us to quiet down, and the fresh linen smell of their habits as they paced the aisles between the desks nailed to the hardwood floors while we said the rosary every afternoon.
Even more powerful is the memory that if you were lucky enough to be sent out of the classroom to take a note to the principal or run an errand for a teacher, you would be in a place of sacred quiet and emptiness in the halls.
The floors smelled of old wood and the stairs at the front and back doors were two stories and well-pounded by small feet. You could breeze through the halls, feeling like a little spy while you heard murmurs coming from behind closed doors of classrooms. If anyone had burst into the school, well, that would have caused a terrible racket. Of course, anyone could walk in at any time, but they knew enough to report directly to the principal’s office.
But, really, the only loud noises we ever heard were fights on the playground, the raised voice of discipline and a hand bell rung by the principal, signaling to you to line up. If anyone was anxious or fearful, it had more to do with passing the next spelling test and being on time for daily Mass than the idea that a gun would be wielded on the premises. The Sandy Hook children will never have the gentle butterflies that flew in our stomachs.
Even more outrageous was that as first-graders, we walked home alone, or with a group of neighboring kids, to have lunch. If you were lucky, you got a Twinkie or Hostess cupcake. Then you dawdled on your way back to school, which was four long blocks and across a very busy street from my house.
There was an occasional stop at one of two small stores on the way that had overflowing shelves of penny candy directed at the St. Matt’s Catholic kids and the largely Protestant kids at School 62 on Moselle Street. What our parents worried about was cavities.
I didn’t think about the sweet pleasure of all this until I moved to Washington, D.C., shortly after college to continue pursuing a career as a journalist. After I had children of my own, I learned about the fearfulness of sending them to school; daily killings of adolescents in poor neighborhoods; the possibility the Capitol could be blown up by a terrorist; the insidious trace of anthrax in the official mail, even at the Washington Post where I worked; and a Beltway sniper in 2002 who ran around the city and suburbs randomly terrorizing innocent victims.
Now they shoot babies, don’t they?
I know there is no St. Matthew’s School anymore, my old neighborhood is a dangerous one, the house I lived in stands forlorn and every city is a target. But in my mind’s eye, I see a church, a school and a statue of Mary with hands outstretched as a safe place where no harm would ever come to us.