At 2:25 p.m. Friday, a bell broke the silence outside Northside Elementary School in Rock Hill. Cars lined up around the block, parents waiting to pick up children.
Almost every adult was whispering on a cellphone or listening to the car radio, reading and listening to news bulletins about 27 dead in Connecticut at an elementary school just like this one.
So many of the dead, 20, were the tiniest children from that school far away that now seemed so close.
A voice came over the school intercom: “Kindergarteners and first-graders are dismissed.”
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Principal Cassidy Valerino, came outside and said, “I have a rising kindergartener myself.”
The school district had told all the schools about the Connecticut shooting, had made sure all schools were safe and secure and all procedures were being followed, Valerino said.
“We just had an emergency drill two weeks ago,” Valerino said. “Every staff member here knows what happened today.”
The parents knew, too. The mothers and fathers waited in those cars to see the children leave safely.
“I want to hug my kid so bad,” said a husky guy in a sports car, right near the front of the car line. There were tears in his eyes and he gripped a cellphone that told him news of so many dead in a school just like this one. “I just want to see her and hug her.”
The kids, in school all day, did not know of Connecticut. From the front door came the tiniest children, some holding hands, ages 5 and 6. Almost every one had a book bag – pinks and blues and purples.
The tiny girls had braided hair. Some boys were missing front teeth as each smiled the joy that is Friday dismissal from school.
Many of the kids didn’t walk so much as they skipped. A few leaped in big bounds.
Teachers held the hands of some of those students and the kids squeezed those hands and the fingers were so tight that the knuckles turned red with the pressure of love.
The bus riders were put on the assigned bus for each student. To look at the kids in Rock Hill on that school bus filled with joy and promise and futures made so many adults looking into the school bus cry because of the dead in Connecticut who have no joy or promise or future.
Down below the school, at the entrance to the Northside Recreation Center where kids go to dream about being doctors and lawyers and cops and firefighters and teachers and video game magnates – anything except death and violence – sat the usual parents who wait there instead of in the car-rider line.
A stranger stood there: me. A parent of three school-age daughters, whose faces had been in my mind all day as my chest constricted, breathless with love for those children of mine.
I wore a nametag and introduced myself so that these parents would not be alarmed by a stranger on possibly the worst school day in the history of America.
I thought about the last words I told my elementary school daughter, who is embarrassed because her father always walks her to the school bus stop each day.
As she boarded the school bus in the cold Friday morning, my daughter heard this: “Love you honey. Have a great day. Do your best. I am proud of you. See you after school.”
So many Connecticut children did not see parents after school Friday. The kids were dead, massacred by a mass murderer.
Tonya and Lee Hollenbacher sat in their van, waiting for their two children inside that Northside school that was safe and full of love and where teachers hugged kids on Friday.
“What justification, what reason, could someone have to shoot children?” asked Tonya Hollenbacher.
“There is no reason; it is sick and it is horrible,” said Lee Hollenbacher.
Down the hill walked the dozen or so kids, led by a teacher, to meet their parents. Moms and dads sprang from cars, leaped to see the children that were safe after hours of hearing about children who were dead in a school.
One mother told how she was a teacher at a different school and that she sure hugged every child Friday.
Tonya Hollenbacher met their younger second-grade daughter, Nolan, 7, with a hug and a gasp of pure joy. Eight-year-old Peyton, in third grade, ran to her father. She wore light blue rain boots the color of the sky.
“My girl!” said Lee Hollenbacher.
He hugged his daughter and he picked her up off the ground in his burly arms.
Peyton had freckles on her face and braids in her hair that she swished in her dad’s face – and he loved it so much he could barely speak.
At the next vehicle, a boy, all boy, named Joshua Evans, 9, climbed past his mother into the SUV. Mom Cindy Evans used the word “evil” to talk about what happened in Connecticut.
Joshua Evans on this awful day simply gave his mother a hug.
Lee Hollenbacher, before he pulled away for home, said he and his wife would take their daughters home and give the girls cookies and then tell them what happened in Connecticut. They would wait for the oldest daughter to get home from high school and hug her, too.
Then he would tell his children that nobody, no one, would ever hurt them.
He, like every parent who hugged a child Friday and longed for the child to be alive, hoped that he told those kids the truth.