Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 23, 2012

Newtown is our town

By Jeff Stewart

---- — Editor's note: The following opinion piece was written by Jeff Stewart, who grew up in Newtown, Conn., and moved to Traverse City in 2007 with his wife, a Traverse City native, and their son. He recalls his childhood there and his hopes for this new hometown.

My name is Jeff Stewart and I have lived in Traverse since 2007 with my wife and our (almost) 2-year-old son. Traverse City is my wife's hometown, and she had always planned to move back. It seemed to me to be a great place to settle down.

We moved here for that reason, and because of all the other things Traverse possesses: good schools, a safe and happy community, and the endless natural beauty of the area.

My wife is constantly pointing out where she, her siblings and school friends created her childhood memories. She has a memory tucked away in every mile of her hometown.

I feel the exact same way about my hometown. My childhood memories pull me back there, and those were the only memories I had of my town before last weekend. I grew up in Newtown, Conn.

I lived in Sandy Hook from the age of 5 until I graduated from Newtown High School in 1998. I did not go to Sandy Hook Elementary, I went to Middle Gate, one of three other elementary schools in town.

My childhood was great, much like I envision my son's childhood in Traverse City.

There was no shortage of kids in every neighborhood, all of whom were outside at all times.

Parental supervision was not required; Newtown was as sleepy as any town you could imagine.

I would be out all day long, riding bikes in summer and sledding in winter.

We swam in Lake Zoar, played soccer at Dickinson and Treadwell Parks, explored the woods, all without ever thinking about our safety. I don't think our parents thought about it very much, either; that's just the kind of place it was.

Granted, this was a different time. My friends and I may have been the last generation to grow up in this manner, no matter where we lived. Still, just like Traverse City, we were light years away from the crime and mayhem of New York or Boston, our closest neighbors.

To me, Newtown was protected by some invisible shield, and I never gave it a second thought.

There are so many ways in which Traverse City reminds me of Newtown. That is why I am writing. I cannot allow Traverse City to experience what Newtown has just gone through.

My son will be old enough to attend school soon. But just because school is the place where children gather doesn't mean it's the only place that needs protection. The reality is that we cannot protect our children everywhere they need to be protected. Front Street, the mall, the movies, every grocery store, department store, every beach on every lake "¦ they cannot all be protected from the lone gunman who has finally lost touch with reality.

We need to do more than fight fire with fire, or walls, or steel bars or constant supervision. Our children need to explore their surroundings the way we all did as children, without us hawking over them in an effort to keep them safe. We need better solutions.

I am not an advocate for anything other than change. I am not a legislator, a statistician or a psychologist.

I don't know if more guns or fewer would make us safer. I don't know what mental health services are available. I don't know what effect movies, TV shows, books, magazines and video games have on us as individuals, a community or as a nation. I wish I knew more, though, and I plan to seek answers to some of those questions and make some changes in my own home.

My goal is to help people in my new community see just how much they resemble the people in Newtown, and provoke the thought that we are in no way safe because of our location or culture. There is no invisible shield. We make our community strong or weak by our action or inaction, but either way it is our responsibility and no one else's.

Things only change when we put in the effort. Wishing, wanting and hoping are not doing. I desperately want to be part of the good that comes from this unspeakable, unimaginable tragedy.

I am ready to do.

Some of my classmates never left Newtown. They knew a good thing when they saw it and chose to grow their roots deeper in the place where they already felt planted.

One of my friends lives in Sandy Hook, and sent his daughter to Sandy Hook Elementary.

She was shot multiple times on Friday morning when the gunman fell upon her first-grade classroom, along with her teacher and all but one of her classmates.

She was 6 years old.