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Out of the Woods / A father's worst nightmare

Published 1:22 pm, Tuesday, December 18, 2012
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President Barack Obama touched a sensitive nerve in me last Friday immediately after the Newtown mass shootings. He reminded me of how close to one's heart a father holds his children. In a brief, somber appearance on television, the president talked about the tragedy that befell so many children, mentioning how attached he was to his own two daughters as he wiped tears from his eyes with a finger.

Subsequently, I watched television over the weekend with profound sadness. I was deeply moved by the words of the grieving, 30-year-old Robbie Parker, father of six-year-old Emilie Parker, one of the 20 children murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

He spoke haltingly of the beautiful, bright, compassionate child whom he had lost for no rational reason and admitted, in answer to a question from a reporter, that, "I don't know how I am going to get through this."

Groping for words, he added that his immediate urge was to help others who are in trouble and to "begin to heal" as a result of the good feelings he hoped to derive by reaching out to other people in their time of need.

He was one of the first parents to speak publicly about their losses. "She was beautiful. She was blond. She was always smiling," he said. "She never missed an opportunity to draw a picture or make a card for those she loved around her."

Remarkably, Parker said he was not mad and, incredibly, offered sympathy for the family of the man who killed 26 people and himself. To the shooter's family, he said, "I can't imagine how hard this experience must be for you."

I was struck by this man's poise and grace under such difficult circumstances, his articulate, extraordinary reaction to the tragedy that had whisked one of his three daughters away from him in a few seconds of horror.

I guess it was perspective as a father that grabbed me in the gut since I, too, am a father of a beautiful daughter who uplifted my life years ago when she was a child. The profound fatherly emotions of a dad wanting to protect a daughter rushed back into my mind -- decades after I had first experienced those feelings.

I connected with this young father instantly. I am very fortunate that my daughter has had the chance to grow up and fulfill many of her dreams as an adult. Robbie Parker will never have that opportunity to witness that, at least not with Emelie. Neither will any of the parents of the 19 other children cut down at the beginning of their precious lives.

This awful feeling of loss, I am certain, permeates our community in Westport. Dads and moms undoubtedly hold their children close every day and, yes, worry as they drop them off at the bus stop near their homes and see them off to school.

The old, "It can't happen here" refrain no longer applies to small towns across America. Newtown has a population roughly the same as Westport and similar demographics.

No doubt our school officials here will double-down on existing security measures and, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, assure Westport parents that their children are safe in our schools. But we, as parents, need more than those assurances. We need to know the details and get involved in making certain our schools are, indeed, safe.

Parent-teacher sessions should be mandatory for every Westport parent to attend, including spending some time in the classrooms with our children and taking a hands-on interest in what they are studying, how they are doing, what they are expressing in their art work and in their compositions, and always being on hand to respond to their questions.

Further, spending time with a child at home, taking an active interest in what they are doing and thinking, and perhaps -- most importantly -- simply being there when they need you.

If there is one lesson Westport parents should learn from this horrible event it is simply this: We do not live in a pocket of plenty that shields us from the ugly evils of the world around us. Without frightening our children, we should make them aware of this. At the same time, we must provide the security they need -- including learning exactly how our educators are protecting our children inside our schools.

It reminds me of that familiar phrase: Trust but verify.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com.