On the morning of December 14, 2012, Kaitlin Roig-Debellis posted a photo of the sunrise on her Facebook page before heading off to work. Such was her enthusiasm for life that the 26-year-old wanted to share the beauty she encountered with others.
Little did the first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School know that within a few short hours her life would change forever.
By the time the sun set that day, Kaitlin would be known throughout the world as the woman who miraculously saved her class of 14 students from a gunman who took the life of 20 children and six adults.
Almost four years later, Kaitlin has released a book, Choosing Hope, about the impact of the school massacre on her life. In it she shares the lessons she has learned as she tries to overcome the despair and emotional turmoil of such a tragedy.
We recently spoke with Kaitlin at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. She had just given a talk where she shared with the audience details of her life prior to the tragedy and how she has managed to find hope after confronting such unbelievable horror.
Kaitlin has an infectious enthusiasm for life. As a little girl she knew that teaching was her passion. Her role as a first-grade teacher was the fulfilment of her dreams. That dream turned into a nightmare at 9.30 that morning as shots rang out in the hallways of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“First comes the initial blast of gunfire, then the sound of shattering glass. The hair on my arms stands up. I know right away what I am hearing. Columbine is happening in the place we call Pleasantville. How can it be? Someone with a weapon is shooting their way into our perfect school. My classroom is the first one in the building. We are in grave danger, I think, sitting targets.”
Most of the audience at the Wheeler Centre would be familiar with the story of how Kaitlin hid her class of 14 six- and seven-year-olds in a bathroom no bigger than a small cupboard. Somehow, she managed to keep the children quiet for 45 minutes as the sounds of horror echoed throughout the school. But hearing a first-hand account of the events of that day is a chilling reminder of how quickly life can change.
‘Live each day as if it’s your last’ is not a cliché when spoken by people who have, quite literally, faced the possibility of living their last day.
But it was the days, weeks and months after the tragedy that inspired Kaitlin to write about her experience. As the enormity of the tragedy became apparent, there were some days when the future seemed hopeless. She even questioned whether she had in fact survived the shooting, and would question those around her “Am I really alive?”
Therapy, and the love and support of her family and fiancé (now husband) Nick, helped her through what she calls her ‘darkest times’. While for a time she lost her sense of identity and optimism for the future, she told us that one thing that never wavered was her faith.
“Faith has always played a huge role my entire life. I have always been very connected with spirituality and with God,” Kaitlin said.
“Obviously being in the bathroom that day I turned to prayer. As a public school teacher in America I felt a little odd, because we are not allowed to have religion in schools. But I knew in that moment that I absolutely had to pray. If some students wanted to then that was fine, if they didn’t that was fine also.
“In moving forward, one of the biggest things that helped me was the ballad ‘Amazing Grace’. It gave me such hope that even though I felt completely lost, I might eventually find my way in life – I might be found. When literally the only two things I could do was get out of bed and shower, I would just hum ‘Amazing Grace’ all day long.
“I never questioned my faith for one second. I think a big part of that is because I do have such a strong faith in God. I have absolutely no idea how this universe works and how we all come to be here and leave here. But it felt very wrong to question ‘why not us, why them,’ or ‘why me’?
“That doesn’t mean that I didn’t question why those 26 lives were lost but, for me, I don’t think that had anything to do with God.”
The turning point for Kaitlin came when she stopped asking the questions that simply couldn’t be answered, and focussed on solutions.
When she returned to school with her students, Kaitlin found they were inundated with gifts and donations from throughout the country. She was grappling with a way to make her students feel joy and hope after what they had been through, and came up with the idea of empowering her students to make others feel happy.
The class devised a ‘giving project’ where they would use some of the donations given to the school to help another class at another school. The children knew how excited they were to receive presents and wanted to share that excitement. As she explained in the book:
“My students wanted to feel better and my job as their teacher was to give them the opportunity to turn that terrible tragedy into something positive. When they seized that opportunity – when they chose that glimmer of hope – was when I knew the shooting was not going to define them or me… That was a first step on our long path to healing.”
From that small idea, Kaitlin has now founded a not-for-profit called Classes4Classes, where students have the opportunity to help other students, and they in turn help another class.
The power of sharing with others is another reason Kaitlin wrote the book.
“Me standing and talking about it, it’s not like it brings it all up. It’s always there. So I think sharing my story of choosing to hope is what I should do. That’s what it’s about. Everyone has pain – we’re not alone in this so we should share it.”
Choosing Hope by Kaitlin Roig-Debellis (with Robin Gaby Fisher), Allen & Unwin. RRP$29.99