School professionals across the country have been particularly affected by the mass killing of children at a Connecticut school last week. But for one Islander, the shock and horror came a little too close to home.
Elizabeth Melichar, a member of the Shelter Island Board of Education, was at work Friday at Eastern Suffolk BOCES in Patchogue where she is a supervisor. She was in the middle of a busy day, when her secretary returned from lunch and asked if Ms. Melichar had heard about “the tragedy in Connecticut.”
Something immediately clicked, but it was only a minor premonition. “I thought, ‘My brother and his family are in Connecticut’” she remembered. “So I asked my secretary where in Connecticut and she said, ‘Oh, Newtown, or something like that.’”
A few years ago, Ms. Melichar’s brother Michael moved from Dix Hills with his wife Laura and two children to Newtown. Michael and Laura’s oldest is a girl in high school and their youngest is a boy in middle school.
“They were looking for a better life for their children,” Ms. Melichar said.
Upon hearing the name of the town, her world turned upside down, but she went into action, immediately going on line and simultaneously texting her sister-in-law. She soon had to brace for the second time in just a few minutes against what seemed like the worst news possible.
Her sister-in-law called to say she’d picked up her son, but her daughter was unaccounted for.
“She told me, ‘I haven’t heard from her,’” Ms. Melichar said, “and we were hearing everything at that point, they didn’t know if it was just one person, that people were roaming the woods, oh my god …” her voice trailed off as she remembered.
Ms. Melchiar learned that Laura had called her father, who is a social worker and was giving guidance on how to counsel the boy. Ms. Melchiar said she had learned subsequently that children the ages of her niece and nephew can be especially vulnerable after witnessing senseless violence.
“They have the cognitive wherewithal to reason and ask why,” she said, adding that answers to questions can’t easily be found for the youngsters.
Finally her sister-in-law texted that her niece was safe, in school, in the middle of a lockdown, and soon was home with her family.
Ms. Melchiar had been a classroom teacher for more than 20 years before becoming an administrator. Her first Tuesday on the job out of the classroom and in a supervisor’s role was 9/11, and she recalled calling the school where her son, age 7, was when news came of the terror attack.
“I spoke to a friend of mine there, a teacher, and knew my son was all right because she was caring for him and would take him home,” she said. “As a teacher, you know that every child is your child, and we’re learning that now with stories of the heroism of the teachers coming out of Newtown.”