A Strength……

I am sitting on a couch in what was once my childhood bedroom now turned office/den in my parent’s house.  I hadn’t planned on doing this yet, but I feel as if I don’t the gravity of today may finally hit me….and I will break apart.   So here I sit, please bear with me as I get this out, because I have never written a post like this.

First I need to thank the people who helped me before I forget because I know I will get lost in writing this…

To the receivers of the hug…
Donna DeMarco, Marsha Moskowitz, Eileen Byrnes, Rhonda Cullens, Lillian Bittman, Amy Thomas, Becky and Bob Virgalla……to Gina McDade, who I have never met, but went out of her way to help.

Thank you

As most people reading this know, I wanted to fulfill the Christmas wish of a student who simply wanted to hug the people suffering in the small New England town of Newtown. I didn’t know how to do it, so I posted the request here, used Twitter, Facebook, posting on Newtown Patch and some wonderful family members to spread the word.

I was not prepared for the response.

I began to get emails and tweets from people in the community, one member in particular, Gina McDade, made an extraordinary effort to connect me to some of the community members, reaching out on my behalf, someone she had never met, to help me, help my student.  She connected me with Marsha Moskowitz, the school bus driver in town……I had a connection, this was important to me because the last thing I wanted to do was just show up after 6 days of funerals in a small town already inundated with people.  But when I spoke to Marsha on the phone she said “I want to make this happen” (in fact that was a common phrase to all I spoke with).

Then again on Saturday afternoon my phone rang, it was Sandi Cole, the director of the  Connecticut division of the Red Cross.  Through my Aunt Cathy making calls to various contacts in the Red Cross an email chain started as one member replied back CC’ing another Red Cross member who might be able to help.  Amidst all they were dealing with they kept saying the same thing, “We want to make this happen”…….and they did.  So when I answered my phone I heard the voice of Sandi, asking me about the situation, and as I told her about Gabrielle and her wish, I could hear Sandi welling up over the phone, and through a strong, but emotional voice she said “I was up all night trying to figure out how to make this happen, we want to make this happen”…..and she did.

She connected me to Amy Thomas, I talked to her on the phone, she said “I want to make it happen”.  So she set up for me to meet with a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary, a reading specialist named Becky Virgalla and her husband Bob who was an EMS in the town.

So there it was, the connections were solid, the plan was made, 9am at the Newtown United Methodist Church would be the meeting spot, I packed my car to head to NYC for the night where I would stay at my sister’s apartment, then take her along with me to Newtown before heading home to Swampscott for the holidays.

So I packed….





My cat Elroy and his supplies


Gifts for my family

….and one very important hug.

I got to my sisters at 9pm, amazingly found parking in downtown Manhattan and tried to get some sleep for the night.  I tossed and turned, my mind was all over the place, my body felt restless, I don’t know, a more spiritual side of me would say it was Gabrielle’s hug aching to get to Newtown, but I think it was nerves.  For the first time since I can remember, I was nervous.  I didn’t know what to expect upon arrival, I have never been a hugger, never knew how to properly embrace someone so they felt like I cared, the last thing I wanted to do was take the beautiful act of a selfless teenager and ruin it with an awkward embrace.  Then I kept thinking “What do I say? What words can I possibly utter to make these people feel better?”  My mind was at a loss, but at this point it didn’t matter, it was 6am and I needed to repack my car and get on the road.

So we hit the West Side Highway and headed for Newtown.  My stomach was in knots, in fact I have yet to eat since yesterday’s dinner….I just didn’t have the appetite.  I watched my GPS tick off the miles, 60miles…..50 miles…….20 miles…..it started to hit me, this was real, no longer will I be sheltered from all this horror by a glass screen….and worse yet I thought….”do not screw up this hug.”

We got off at exit 10 on 84, took a right, and within a half mile I pulled into the parking lot of Newtown United Methodist Church…..and there was a small group of people waiting for Gabrielle’s hug.   My body felt detached, I was just taken aback seeing this group standing in the cold waiting, just waiting……for a hug.

I was at a loss for words, I swallowed, got out of the car not knowing what to say and began walking over…..then I heard in a loud, welcoming voice….”You must be John”…..it just completely disarmed me and all my nervousness washed away and I replied “You must be Marsha…” to which the group laughed.

I walked up, and I didn’t even have to think, seeing the town, the people, the memorials, all of it just came crashing into me and before I knew it I was hugging each one of them…..and saying “This is from Gabrielle Carter”.

Then I hugged Becky Virgalla, the reading specialist who was in the principal’s office in a meeting when the shooting occurred, the things she had to see, what she must have felt, I couldn’t imagine.  When I hugged her I felt her tremor, fighting back tears, and without thinking I just hugged her harder, I just wanted so badly to be able to let her know that not only did I care, but a teenager she never met 200 miles away cared…..

I fought back the tears, holding her, thinking of the memories she is now forced to live with and at the same time not wanting to make these people have to comfort me when they were grieving so badly themselves.  When we let go of each other the group saw I was fighting back tears, and they just hugged me, smiling and telling me it’s what they do…they are a strong community and they support anyone who needs it, even if they are in need themselves.

So there we were, the person who came to deliver a hug is being consoled by a group of people who have seen 6 days of funerals…..I could not believe the strength and resilience of these people.  Mom’s, dad’s, wives, husbands, teachers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, children…..carrying a weight I couldn’t even imagine.

As if this wasn’t enough they had handfuls of gifts for Gabrielle and my school.  Ribbons, pictures, t-shirts, Gabrielle’s favorite gum, a school newspaper, knitted shawls, and one of the most amazing gifts of all, a green and white scarf for Gabrielle so she can wear it, and feel the town hugging her back and keeping her warm….something I can personally attest to that the residents of Newtown are extraordinary at.

After a final hug with these wonderful ladies Amy took me by the hand so I could have some private conversation with Becky and her husband Bob as they walked me down through town and toward the school.

I have not held another person’s hand, even my wife’s, in a long time, but Amy had me by the hand, a comforting “everything is OK” type of touch as she led me over to the Virgallas.  We talked again, and I said to Becky “Please, you don’t have to talk to me about what you went through.”  But she told me “I don’t mind, it is therapeutic”.

She began to tell me her story that day….and I clenched my jaw, first in anger at the individual responsible, and then in an effort to fight back tears.  I don’t want to go into details because this is not what this about, but this woman, who couldn’t be more than 5’3″, the serene face of grandmother that just radiates kindness, was telling me a story that should be coming from a combat-worn marine…..not her.

The part that got me, was her husband.  He was an EMS in the town and home when the shooting occurred.  The cell service is bad in the town and when it first happened Becky called him at home and had to leave a message, telling him what was going on….not knowing the full extent yet.  Then Bob saw a ticker on the news and heard what was going on over the emergency dispatch band.  He grabbed his stuff and went down to the station.  They told him he was staying there, he wasn’t going with them.  Then he said something that will resonate with me, he said “I told them, when you get there you make sure she calls me, and if she can’t…….I want you to call me, I don’t want to hear it from a state trooper.”

I felt my stomach drop and my legs went numb. He said it with the resolve and composure I can only hope to have in a situation like that.  I thought of me and Aqila, both working at the school….what would I do…..and I quickly pushed the thought out of my mind.

So we walked, past the memorials toward the school, and we talked, and we walked, and we talked…..they told me more details of the day, details that no teacher…….no human should ever have to witness.  They told it to me with a strength I didn’t think possible in a human…..and I fought, I fought not to cry, not to break down, not to make these two people have to comfort me.

The memorials, hundreds of items left for those killed, framed by the backdrop of a beautiful New England town, small shops along the road, a diner, the sounds of the rushing brook flowing under the small bridge, the wonderful silhouettes of huge leafless trees with a smattering of evergreens throughout….and that wonderfully brisk New England air that nourishes your soul as you breathe deeply and look at a distant sun…..bright, but to far away to warm you up.

On any other day I would call this heaven.

I didn’t want to break here, not while I am in town.  “Later, when you are alone, but not here” I thought…..and it became harder to fight….

I just kept telling myself, “Look around, look at Bob, and Becky, and the people here, look at the response from the country, look at the amount of kindness and generosity that this act of evil, that this, to put in Bob’s words “lightning bolt of evil” has evoked.  As I walked through the town, watching big, burly men sob as they embraced other townspeople, a town who just had 6 days straight of funerals, a town who has let their emotional guard down, and let the country in….a town, that someone attempted to shatter, has found a strength that no amount of bullets could ever break.

A strength no community should ever have to find….

I thought of Friday morning, hugging Gabrielle, feeling her love for the residents of Newtown.  I thought of her handing me that card, then I thought of my school….

Chris Murphy, the senior who took a shell shocked teacher fresh from teaching in Brooklyn aside to let him know no one here was going to stab him if he turned his back…..Chris Murphy who years later would be senselessly gunned down on his way home from work at Temple Hospital.

I thought of baseball players I have coached, the students who watched the Red Sox 2004 World Series run religiously, night after night with me.  The ones I later took to Fenway.

I thought of the students who tested us daily.

The students who come to me asking what they need to do if they want to major in science.

The students who need advice on relationships.

The students who need to know there are more fish in the sea….and this isn’t the end of the world.

The students we spend hours helping, finally get it…and that resulting smile…that brilliant smile……every teacher knows it…..it washes away every bad teaching memory.

I thought of the van rides with the girls soccer team I coached, I thought of them making fun of me as I belted out Pearl Jam as it played on the radio….and the amusement they got when I lit up at the sound of “Call Me Maybe”.

I thought of my first day teaching in Brooklyn, like a new soldier about to go to war, stomach in knots.

I thought of the joy in seeing a student get accepted to college, and my signature “hard slap on the back this is my version of a hug” method of consoling the ones who got a denial letter.

I thought of watching a shy student gain confidence.

I thought of the lines of elementary school kids walking up our campus road in their little uniforms.

I thought of the unbridled excitement in 1st graders as I showed them my tortoises and snakes.

I thought of the students who comes after school to clean snake cages, and ask questions.

I thought of the teachers who work tirelessly around me.  The ones who shell out dollar after dollar so the students can have not only what they need, but maybe sometimes what they want.

I thought of the teachers who drive home, late for dinner because they were helping a student.

I thought of my wife, Aqila, and how much I love popping into her office and seeing her beautiful smile in the middle of the day…..curing me of whatever teaching affliction I was struggling with that day.

I thought of all the students who I watched go from 2nd and 3rd grade to college…..

…..and I thought about the 20 children and 6 educators who will never get to feel any of this again.

“Oh no” I thought, standing at the police barricade on the road to the school, “Here it comes…”

I felt all these thoughts gather into one giant emotional wave that started in my gut…..knowing when it got my head it would wash out of me in one way……..tears……

I looked around….and I saw Newtown, I saw Bob, and Becky, the policemen, the residents, the hugs, the embraces, the memorials, the tangible resilience of the people…..I took a deep breath of that brisk New England air….and I felt a strength I have never felt before…..

……the strength of Newtown.




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19 responses to “A Strength……

  1. dwgerrr@gmail.com

    John – I am so glad you were able to go to Newtown and deliver “THE HUG” We have to stay positive and know this strong community can somehow endure the pain. Norfolk Ave. forever !! Debbie Geraci Have a blessed Christmas with family and friends and KEEP ON HUGGING AND HOLDING HANDS !!!

  2. Beautiful and heartfelt. You have truly captured the essence of Newtown. Take this experience to everyone you know, especially your students and most importantly, Gabrielle. I have a feeling that from now on you will be known as a hugger!

  3. Desiree Vaiuso

    I posted something similar yesterday on my FB. We are Newtown, we are strong, and we are ready to pick up the pieces an move on.

    ~ Mother of a survivor!

  4. torry jordan

    John this brought tears to my years it great to have people like you in this world that would perform such an act of kindness and what a great example u set for all your students all all us its is a privlage to have grown up in the same town as you

  5. Annmarie Dragani


  6. John,
    We go though so much teaching the children who we teach, including the recent death of yet another one of or own. I wasn’t able to let go and cry about the Newtown tragedy, and it frightened me (being the weepy art teacher who can’t stop crying sometimes and is too sensitive). Thank you for letting me finally cry over this. I think that you took all of love and hugs up there with you, not just one student’s.

  7. Teresa Coffey

    Crying at my desk now. I am so glad that the GC students are not here to see me now. They see me cry when they inform me they got into the college of their choice. Or when they finally pass your class because they worked as hard as you asked them to do. I have asked myself over and over what kind of young adults we are raising here at GC. Yes we all at Girard College are raising them. My heart is fulled with pure joy. It gives me hope that know that maybe these young beautiul people want more for their future than just material things. And that we can all hope for the future to be a brighter place. Thank you John. And above all thank you Gabrielle for your generous act of kindness. I am so proud of you.

  8. Scott Sowers

    I’m proud to call you my colleague and even more proud to call you my friend. Thank you for this.

  9. Gabrielle Carter

    Yay! You did it, Thank You sooooo much. I wish I was there too.

      • Desiree Vaiuso

        We all thank you so much. The love sent our way from around the world has been … stupifying. There are no words to express our gratitude.

        Here is my post on FB last night:

        “OK. I lied. I’m posting about it again.

        I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions — let’s face facts, Ladies and Gents, we NEVER live up to them. This year though, I’m doing a New Year’s Wish.

        My wish is that the love expressed to our town, from all around the world, carries over to one another. And continues long after the news crews leave our town to follow the next big story.

        I just want non-residents to learn lessons from this that we have learned, and some that we already knew.

        Lesson #1 – Never skip an opportunity to say, “I love you.”
        Lesson #2 – Hug your children every day until they smack you in the head.
        Lesson #3 – Smile at your neighbors. They might be the ones to hold you up when you’re about to fall.
        Lesson #4 – Parent-Teacher conferences? Heh. No fighting. Just hug those heroes protecting your babies.
        Lesson #5 – Policemen, Firefighters and EMT’s — I salute them. Join me.
        Lesson #6, the most important one of all, — Your higher power. Whatever or whomever it may be, follow it.”

        And I meant every word. The best way that you can help us heal is to just continue to be kind to one another.

        Bless you both this Christmas Eve, and always.

        ~ Desiree

    • Merry Christmas Gabrielle! Your hug meant so much to us and gave us hope that there are still many good people in the world. I know you are going to be successful at whatever you do, as long as you follow your heart, because it’s a big one! Thank you, thank you, thank you for reaching out so quickly and selflessly to the hurting people of Newtown! We love you!!! <3<3<3

  10. I’m grateful to know you and thinking how even now you are teaching us by modeling caring, perseverance, vulnerability and reflection. Merry Christmas.

  11. attiat

    That was beautiful.

  12. attiat

    That was beautiful

  13. Candi Nieman Skurow

    John, I am born and raised in Swampscott and so were my children. Even though we have never met I am not surprised that someone from our town would do this. Like Newtown, we are a small community and everyone sticks together in time of need. Become a hugger and a hand holder and shed a tear every now and then. Don’t hold back. It feels good. I am proud of you and we have never met, and your parents must be bursting at the seams. You are a very special man. Keep doing what you’re doing. God bless.
    Candi Skurow

  14. It’s great knowing that GC is still filled with amazing teachers. Thanks for sharing Gabrielle’s hug and your story.

  15. Beautifully written. Heartfelt. Thank you.

  16. Gilda Surette

    Not only was this an amazing tribute…it was heartfelt and honest and pure. I am thankful you shared your experience, because it gave each of us reading it an opportunity to feel that through tragedy, there comes love, compassion and support….even if it’s from strangers and through a simple hug.

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