"I am an ecologist and I am a mother – I am not an activist… Now I find myself researching gun control, emailing my elected officials, and putting out feelers to figure out how I, as an individual, can make a difference."
-- Anne Priest, Stepdaughter of Sandy Hook’s Heroic Principal
The afternoon of Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 was a typical afternoon. I was at home in the UK trying to set up some kind of international calling plan through my mobile phone provider. My kids were watching "Scooby-Doo" until it was time to leave for swim lessons. At 3:50 GMT (10:50 EST), that all changed when I received a call from my sister. I picked it up as normal with a cheerful, “Hey, how are you?” She replied, “Things are not okay. There has been a shooting at Dawn’s school. I don’t know any details yet.” It wasn’t until much later that my dad phoned with the horrible news that Dawn had been killed. One of my initial comments to my husband was, “We need to accelerate the move back plan,” but as the reality set in and I learned more details of that day I found myself thinking, “How can I ever move my family back to a place where this kind of tragedy could occur?”
I am an ecologist and I am a mother -- I am not an activist. Before the day Dawn was murdered, I would have told you that the issues I am interested in advocating for are the environment, sustainable living, and education. If I were to get a chance to stand on a soapbox it would have been to shout out about the importance of public transportation and species diversity. Now I find myself researching gun control, emailing my elected officials, and putting out feelers to figure out how I, as an individual, can make a difference. It is cathartic in a way and maybe, possibly is helping me deal with my grief. I don’t know. All I know is that there is no way the status quo can remain. Whether that means stricter gun laws or addressing mental health or preferably a combination of the two, something has to change.
On my fridge there is a photo of my sisters and me with our dad; our faces filled with joy and smiles. For ten years, Dawn made my dad so incredibly happy. She put a smile on his face and, albeit cheesy, the spring in his step. I find myself looking at that picture daily and willing that smile to come back to my dad’s face. His life has been turned upside down, his well-laid plans for the future are now in pieces and the sparkle in his eyes has gone out. All because of one word: Gun.
I’m embarrassed to say that before Dec. 14, 2012, I hadn’t ever really given a lot of thought to gun control. Here’s how I’ve always seen it: guns equal killing, so less guns would equal less killing. There has got to be some kind of math equation that supports that theory, right? If a = b, etcetera? How could someone be against gun control? Do they want more killing? Doesn’t make sense. Yes, I know these are very simplified versions of a complicated issue (and I’m busy enough running around after a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, while also teaching high school, to spend much more brain space on this) but at its essence, I believe my formula is true.
Then my stepmother, Dawn Hochsprung, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school. And my ideas about gun control, and the amount of space I began to allocate for thinking about this issue, changed drastically.
Now, I feel the word “gun” in the pit of my stomach. It is no longer an abstract concept; instead, it has weight and heft to it. It has become tangible. And ugly. I find myself lingering over the concrete details of Dawn’s death. How many times was she shot, when she ran out of the office? Where was she shot? Did she have time to think, and feel fear, and then pain?
Now the word "gun" makes me sick.
I’m no expert. I can’t rattle off statistics. Sometimes (I cringe to admit this) I just read the headlines of The New York Times and call it good. But I know what grief feels like. I know what that gun can do, how it can rip apart not only flesh but lives, future plans and dreams. I know what it feels like to have to walk down the stairs and tell my father that the funeral home is requesting “additional clothing items” to prepare Dawn’s body for the wake.
I had only known Dawn for 10 years. I watched how she made my dad so happy. Her big smile and infectious laugh added color and vibrancy to our family. This fall, as I struggled through my own tough time, I grew to value and appreciate her even more -- for her constant support, her phone calls and texts when other people in my life remained silent. I feel so thankful that a week before she was killed I sent her a card telling her that. It was open on the counter when I got down to Connecticut on that awful Friday night, carrying both my sleepy 2-year-old daughter and my shock in my arms. I’m thankful that she read it in time.
As Dawn’s stepdaughter, as a mother, as a teacher -- as a human being -- I advocate for a less violent world. Gun control has to be a part of that.
I possess a certain personality trait; it’s one of those characteristics that can be used in job interviews when your future boss asks you what your biggest weakness is, like being stubborn (which can be flipped around to mean that you are perseverant). Mine is that I have always had a hard time having a definite opinion on issues. I would tell myself that "it’s because I’m open-minded," or that “I have the ability to see both sides of the story.” But I have always wondered if it is just because I am seeking the approval of others, and by picking a side on an issue, would cause people on the other side of the issue to not like me.
Gun control has always been “one of those issues.” I grew up in a household that didn’t hunt, didn’t have guns. We didn’t even really talk about guns or gun violence. I now live in central Pennsylvania, where hunting is a big part of the culture, so big that the first day of hunting season is a holiday and kids have the day off school. I always told myself that I could understand where the gun rights people were coming from, even though I had no interest in owning a gun myself.
On Dec.14, 2012 a young man forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and used a number of guns, one being an assault rifle, to kill 20 first graders and 6 adults. One of those adults was Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of the school. She was also my stepmother, my dad’s wife, and grandmother to my children. It’s been more than a month since that horrible day, and I have spent that time grieving, trying to be a support for my father, thinking of the other families who lost their spouses, daughters, and sons, and hugging my own children extra tight. And I’ve been thinking about guns and gun control. For what it’s worth, I can no longer see both sides of the story or remain open-minded about this issue. Something has to change so that gun violence in this country begins to decrease. We as a nation need to take a close look at everything from mental health to regulations and restrictions and start to form a reasonable plan to stop these tragedies from occurring. I may incur the wrath and disapproval of neighbors and friends who feel differently, but I, as an individual, need to get off the fence and be part of the dialogue. I owe it to my children to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” (Gandhi). I owe it to Dawn.
Dawn Hochsprung's Stepdaughters Share Their Stories
Beth, Amy and Anne are Dawn Hochsprung’s stepdaughters. Dawn was the principal at Sandy Hook school. She is missed every day by her family.
Beth Ewaskiewicz lives in Pennsylvania. She is an equine veterinarian and mother to three children. She spends her free time at the barn with her horse or playing the violin.
Amy Lawton lives in northern New Hampshire, where she keeps busy teaching high school English, running around after her two small children, and hiking, biking and skiing in her (admittedly not much) free time.
Anne Priest lives in England. She is currently working on a PhD in biology and raising two small children. When not immersed in her studies or playing with her kids, she enjoys running, cooking and gardening.