China adoption diary: Newtown shooting and a holiday concert, interrupted

The moment Gretchen Belsie heard about the Newtown shooting was during adopted daughter Madeleine's first holiday concert performance.

Gretchen Belsie
Gretchen Belsie's adopted daughter, Madeline, is seen in this photograph.

On a bright and cold Friday afternoon in December, my husband and I attended the annual Holiday Concert held at our daughters’ elementary school. The event – a combination of old-school enthusiasm for the music of the season with a super-sized PTO bake sale off to the side – was something we had both looked forward to this year, especially since it would be Madeleine’s first encounter with this aspect of the American Christmas experience. We had heard endless details from fifth grader Grace and had watched her practice her “Lotsa Latkes” Jewish dance number in the living room for at least a month. But since Madeleine still doesn’t speak much English, we weren’t sure what her grade would be offering up on the program.

Solid attendance at the concert is a given. Parents get off work for two hours, grandparents throng the gymnasium, younger siblings are dragged along to chortle and weep throughout the presentations. Given a past experience when we had arrived just before the doors “officially opened” and thus had to stand leaning up against the junior rock climbing wall for two hours, I urged Laurent to drop me off ahead of time so I could dash in and save some seats while he went to park the car down the street. I was fortunate to get two seats together in the last row, and this time, we had only a pair of sobbing toddlers in our immediate area.

The cultural and ethnic diversity of the audience stood out in marked contrast to the relative homogeneity of the population in the Midwest region where we used to live. Spanish conversations swirled around us. I noticed several Muslim women in the crowd with brightly colored head scarves. A Mongolian mother stood by with an infant cradled in her arms. A young Japanese mother searched for her daughter when the kindergarteners marched in in a wobbly line.

There was so much joy and anticipation in the air. And then Laurent showed up, took his seat beside me, and with a strange expression on his face stated simply, “I just heard this on the car radio. A gunman got into an elementary school in Connecticut and shot some teachers and their kindergarten students. Many are dead.” In that one moment, the color and joy seemed to drain away from the gymnasium. It was as though everything was now sepia-toned. I felt numb.

On some level, the concert was still enjoyable, but the deep concern for the events of that morning kept coming to thought. As a parent, how could I ever survive such a thing? What, if anything, could I do to alleviate some of the pain and fear that would no doubt be on my children’s minds as the details of the story unfolded? Were my children really safe at school? Was there still a way to protect and preserve a sense of innocence for their childhood experience?

I decided to focus, as best I could, on the innocence and purity I saw expressed in the various performances. As the kindergarteners rattled unto the raisers and shrilled “Hello, how are you?” in different languages, holding up cards that read “Bonjour” and “Ni hao” for audience approval, I felt that palpable sense of innocence, that ability to represent a world that knows peace and tolerance and joy.

When Madeleine and the other second graders trooped in wearing homemade construction paper Kwanzaa crowns, I could feel the tears welling up. There she stood, proudly joining in with the song’s hand gestures and doing a yeoman’s job at lip-synching the unfamiliar words, happy as a lark and the picture of innocence. Soon after, the fifth graders took to the aisles, dancing in circles to the melancholy strains of “Lotsa Latkes.” Grace would never have been mistaken for a Jewish lass, even with the long dark skirt and shawl, but she did manage to hold hands briefly with several of the fifth grade boys and demonstrate a certain seriousness of purpose.

As the concert wrapped up, the audience was invited to join in singing that old folk ballad, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” that Coca-Cola appropriated for its advertising campaign in the late 1960’s. By that point I was emotionally spent and could only let my tears flow. I wanted to believe that that world could still exist for my children.

The following Monday, school administrators and teachers took time out of the daily schedule to review with the children the appropriate safety procedures they would need to know by heart should a similar emergency ever happen at their school. That night at the supper table, Grace confidently recounted what she had learned that day, listing all the hiding places she now knew about at school. “If we are in the gym, we’re all supposed to run and cram ourselves into the ball storage closet and KEEP QUIET.”

As a parent, you hope and pray that this discussion was only academic. But given recent tragic events in Newtown, Conn., perhaps the watchword of this generation of elementary school children is “innocence forearmed.”                        

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