Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, American students have had to live with the ever-present threat of gun violence. There have reportedly been 80 school shootings already this year, 29 at college and the other 51 on K-12 school grounds. Those who live through the unique horror of a school shooting contend with an especially devastating kind of trauma. Many of them are just kids, and as they age into adulthood, the scars of their past can feel especially sharp.
Eleven years ago today, sisters Paige and Meghan Tarpey watched a gunman terrorize their elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Paige, who was 7, and Meghan, who was 8, survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 of their classmates and six school employees. For the first time since that day, the Tarpey sisters are ready to tell the world what happened.
Paige, now 18, and Meghan, now 19, are both smart, self-aware, and determined. What they experienced that day doesn’t define them, but it does guide who they are becoming. They want to help other school shooting survivors heal and give back to their communities. They want to inspire hope. Speaking out about what happened is painful, but cathartic. The Tarpey girls believe changing the future starts by sharing their stories.
Paige was just 7 years old when a gunman entered her first grade classroom. He killed five of her classmates, as well as her teacher and a special aid. Meghan, who was 8 and in the third grade, heard gunshots from down the hall. She had no idea if her sister was still alive.
Paige: The gunshots started in the hallway, and we ran to the back of the classroom. The gunman came into our room shooting and stood in front of us wearing a camouflage outfit. As he looked down to reload, five other kids and I ran out the door. I was the last to get out. There were two or three dead bodies on the floor and blood everywhere. I remember looking back from down the hallway and seeing him standing in front of our class. I froze, thinking I should get more of my classmates to come with us. Then the other kids and I ran out of the school. We ran far away, the sound of gunshots growing fainter.
Meghan: As we sat coloring at our desks, the Christmas music playing on the loudspeaker suddenly stopped. Our principal, Dawn Hochsprung, screamed into the loudspeaker. Instead of the morning announcements, we heard her last breaths. She was trying to warn us. Then, the sounds of gunshots filled the school, and our class huddled together in a corner. We sat there, waiting. My teacher held me as I cried.
When news broke about the shooting, their parents dropped everything and rushed to Sandy Hook Elementary. Meghan, whose classroom was evacuated, was waiting outside. Paige was sheltering at a house nearby. While Meghan stayed with their mother, their father, a police officer, went looking for Paige. They all prayed she had survived.
Paige: We ran out of the school and sat on the side of the road. Some school buses were parked there, so a driver brought us to a neighbor’s house. His name was Gene, and he welcomed us inside and brought out a bin of stuffed animals. I was wearing a dalmatian shirt, so he gave me a stuffed dalmatian toy. We used Gene’s phone to call our parents. I was so grateful to remember my home number. Thank God my dad picked up. As soon as he heard my voice, he hung up and rushed to get me.
Meghan: I didn’t know if Paige had made it out, if she was alive. I found my mom outside the school. She tried to calm me down. She stayed with me while my dad, in all the craziness, went in search of Paige. Finally, after what felt like hours, I saw my dad walking over with Paige. I have never felt such relief in my entire life.
As the nation moved on to the next mass shooting, and the next, and the next, Paige and Meghan were left struggling to make sense of what happened that day at Sandy Hook—a horror that’s haunted them ever since.
Paige: When I look back on my childhood, it’s separated into two parts. The first part is before the shooting, and the second is every day after. I started to go to Yale for therapy. They encouraged me to talk about what happened, but it took a while. Every aspect of life has been so difficult, from making friends to driving a car. For instance, I can’t process some information at school, because being in a school building is so draining. Mentally, it just doesn’t feel like I am grown up. I am still the age I was the day of the shooting, because life stopped for me after that day. I ask myself: Who would I be if it never happened?
Meghan: It wasn’t until last year that Paige sat me down and told me everything that happened that day at Sandy Hook. The two of us have had to unpack a lot together. But I guess that goes for so many. I grew up fast because of the shooting, and I became very protective of Paige. I learned to put my emotions elsewhere, so my parents could focus on her. I channeled my stress by becoming hyper-aware. When I enter a classroom, the first thing I check is where the entry points are, just in case. At the end of every conversation with family and friends, I always say, “I love you.” It doesn’t matter if we argue. You never know if it’s the last time you’ll talk to someone.
Paige, now 18, is in her senior year of high school and looking forward to life outside the classroom. Meghan is 19 and in her sophomore year at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she studies criminal justice and paralegal work. She recently decided to go into the military.
Paige: I don’t really like being around lots of people, but Meg is very social. In school, she knew everyone, while I was always very isolated. I have PTSD and anxiety, and it’s caused me to miss out on basic high school stuff. Yes, I’ve had crushes, and that kind of feels nice. But I’m a senior now, and I just want school to end, because it feels so heavy. In the future, I want to do something that makes me happy, because I know nothing is guaranteed. I love to make art, and I feel through art. I love looking at art by people who have gone through things. I think it shows how you can keep going after experiencing something very difficult.
Meghan: My past shows up like it does for everyone else: in relationships. I’ve had boyfriends and learned a lot about myself, but sometimes it’s hard to let people get close to me. I also had a harder time adapting to college than most people. Going away to college was unsettling and stressful. I’ve decided to go into the military, which may not be the usual career for a school shooting survivor. I like being held accountable. Life as an officer revolves around leadership, and my experience has made me a good leader, because I understand struggle. Also, I’ve been around guns and feel fine. I think that on some level, the gun gives me a sense of power that comes from what happened to us.
Meghan and Paige want the world to know what happens to school shooting survivors after the news cycle changes. They are not statistics or political talking points. Meghan and Paige are two sisters with very real struggles that they still deal with every day. They have each other, and they have hope.
Paige: I want peace and good relationships in my life. I don’t know what I want to do with my life, I just know that I want to live it. We were so young when Sandy Hook happened, and the majority of our lives have not happened yet. An experience like that is going to teach you to make what you can for yourself and for others. I want to build more connections and more relationships with people.
Meghan: We were some of the first kids to go through that experience. When I saw what happened in Uvalde, Texas, I wanted all the survivors there to know how Paige and I turned out as adults. What happened that day will never be gone from our lives, but we can use our trauma to make ourselves stronger. Our family had this motto after Sandy Hook, and I just got it tattooed on my arm. It’s ‘Hold on to what is good,’ or ‘HOTWIG’ for short. We want to help those who go through similar situations. We can create community. We can be role models. We hope that by raising our voices, we can help others.
Lauren Yanks is an award-winning writer and professor. She is the Founder and Executive Director of The Blue Butterfly Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps educate and empower women and children who’ve been trafficked and enslaved. www.bluebutterflyfoundation.org