On those nights when Amy DeLoughy’s children can’t sleep, haunted by memories of the massacre at their elementary school, or on those mornings when they can’t face the daily routine, she calls in the ducks.
Doctor ducks, military ducks, postal worker ducks, princess ducks, police ducks and, of course, white ducks with green ribbons — the symbol of solidarity and healing for Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The perfect size for fitting in an elementary school student’s hand, a rubber duck is a goofy, colorful and unexpectedly comforting talisman for the hundreds of Sandy Hook students who lived through one of the worst elementary school massacres in U.S. history. Some students now have dozens.
It’s been a half-year since the tragedy. In those six months, as the world’s attention has shifted elsewhere, life inside the substitute Sandy Hook school in Monroe has been a close interplay of students and teachers learning a new normal.
Healing is a slow process with erratic progress.
For some, the memories remain jarringly fresh — the acrid smell of gun smoke, the sharp echo of gunshots over the public address system, the crunch of broken glass underfoot as crying children fled — and far worse for others, particularly students and staff at the school office and near the first-grade classrooms where 20 classmates and six women died.
For some students, little sounds can be terrifying — the slam of a dropped book, a car door closing or a raised angry voice.
Little things can be reassuring, too.
The decorated plastic ducks were among the boxes of teddy bears, toys and school supplies that flooded Newtown in the weeks after the Dec. 14 shooting, filling public spaces and garages and, eventually, warehouses. Sent by Kiwanis members in Colorado, the ducks were plucked from the other donations by Monroe police Officers Todd Keeping and Michael Panza, who provided security at the new school.
They put the ducks on windowsills and desks, and in classroom nooks, hoping to ease tension and brighten dark days.
“Adults like them. Kids like them,” Keeping said. “It just got to the point where I’d hear, ‘My kid is riding the bus and looking forward to coming to school again.’ ”
The ducks are a healthy distraction, a mascot and a metaphor for healing and new life, psychologists and child trauma experts say.
“It serves as a transitional object, something to help distract you from painful thoughts and memories,” said Laura Saunders, a child psychologist at Hartford Hospital‘s Institute of Living. “And, at the same time, it gives you inspiration that there’s something beyond what’s going on right in front of you.”
This Easter, children scurried across a field near their new school in Monroe to scoop up more than 3,000 ducks — like an egg hunt. It was a zigzagging mad dash with cheers and giggles.
That Easter scene would have been difficult to imagine even a few months earlier, when some children tearfully told parents that they didn’t want to, that they couldn’t, return to school.
The first day back, in January, parents followed the school buses that took their children to the new Sandy Hook, a once-closed middle school in Monroe renovated on a tight schedule over the winter holidays. There was a strong police presence at the school, as well as television cameras, photographers with long lenses and reporters with notepads lining the road.
That’s as close as any outsider has gotten to the school.
What happens inside the school is shared discreetly, and most of the stories are those that the community has tacitly deemed acceptable. The ducks are something to focus on, a story to share other than the one they lived through, a toy that allows children to be kids again, to play.
While many are mum publicly about the shooting, or about daily activity at the school, the parents talk. They talk with each other, with counselors, with clergy, with relatives, with anyone who can help them help their children and themselves.