Local teacher called Newtown home
CLEVELAND — To Leslie Hudson-Tolles, Newtown isn’t the site of another tragic mass shooting hundreds of miles away.
It’s the place she called home for nearly 30 years.
Hudson-Tolles lived in Newtown, Conn., from 1977 until 2006, when she moved to Rowan County. Both of her children grew up and went to school there.
She once worked at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where on Friday, a gunman forced his way inside and killed 26 people.
One of them, Lauren Rousseau, was a substitute teacher Hudson-Tolles had known. Twenty were young children.
“These babies were born the year that I left, six years ago,” Hudson-Tolles said. “I know some of their grandparents and some of their parents. ... We all crossed paths at church and in the grocery store.”
Now a part-time art teacher at Sacred Heart Catholic School, Hudson-Tolles previously worked as a teacher for two different Connecticut school systems. At Sandy Hook, she taught a summer school program called Art Smart.
On Friday morning, Hudson-Tolles’ phone started ringing with calls from her hometown, she said, and at first she didn’t think much of it. She and her husband were busy unpacking from a move from Salisbury to western Rowan County, near Cleveland.
When she finally answered the phone, she said her heart broke at the horror that had taken hold of the normally quiet, peaceful community.
Hudson-Tolles wept Monday as she talked about the victims, the survivors and their loved ones.
“It’s very hard to watch your church and neighbors on CNN and not be there for them,” she said. “My girls were pretty upset. You just want to hug your own kids.”
With no names and few details, Hudson-Tolles spent the rest of the day trying to connect with people she knew back in Newtown. She called to make sure they were OK, then grieved with them for those who weren’t.
She said she’s been sharing condolences from local people with her former neighbors and co-workers. She thinks it would mean a lot to them that students at West Rowan Middle School painted their rock in support of a community 700 miles away.
“No one can distance themselves from this,” Hudson-Tolles said. “These are our children. Not just my neighbors’ children, but North Carolina’s children - the nation’s children.”
But Hudson-Tolles’ grief is also personal.
Sometime late Friday night or early Saturday morning, she got a call from a fellow art teacher who had moved to New Hampshire.
“‘I told her, ‘Oh my God, this is so bad,’” Hudson-Tolles said. “She said, ‘It’s about to get worse.’”
Rousseau, a 30-year-old substitute teacher, had been named as one of the victims.
Hudson-Tolles was acquainted with Rousseau and knows her father, a photographer, and her stepmother, a recently retired teacher.
“Lauren had always wanted to teach, and she got her master’s degree,” she said. “Finally, I believe six weeks before, she had landed a permanent substitute teaching job. She was subbing in the first grade, and she was the first to be shot.”
Rousseau had told family and friends that this was the best year of her life, Hudson-Tolles said, because she had a good boyfriend and the job she’d been hoping for.
When people asked Rousseau’s stepmother if there was anything they could do, Hudson-Tolles said, she replied, “Hug your loved ones for us. With everyone’s love, we will get through this.”
Hudson-Tolles said she is very proud of her fellow teachers, who did exactly what they were trained to do in a lockdown situation.
“I remember the first lockdown drill I had at Erwin,” she said. “The kids said, ‘What would we do?’ I said I would be the first to the door. They said, ‘Why would you do that? You have a family.’ I said in a situation where someone breaches the classroom, it is the teacher’s job... to defend their students.”
Hudson-Tolles said everyone did that at Sandy Hook, but they still couldn’t save every child.
Those boys and girls should not die in vain, she said.
“The greater question is, how do we protect all of our children?” Hudson-Tolles said. “This could happen anywhere.”
Some are calling for more protection and security in schools, she said, but that can only happen if people are willing to spend money to equip them.
Hudson-Tolles herself is questioning the availability of assault rifles, which can fire faster and for a more sustained period than other guns. She said her father was an avid hunter and member of the National Rifle Association, but he didn’t think assault weapons should be legal.
The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, used one such rifle at Sandy Hook on Friday, in addition to a pistol and a shotgun. The weapons were bought legally and owned by his mother, who was one of his victims.
Hudson-Tolles also hopes the country will take a closer look at how it treats mental illness, and the resources it devotes to mental health. According to media reports, relatives believe Lanza had a form of autism along with a personality or anxiety disorder.
“Maybe you can’t prevent it all, but I bet you can prevent some of it,” Hudson-Tolles said. “If you can prevent one death, it’s worth it.”
People who want to help Newtown can pray and show their support, Hudson-Tolles said. The town is accepting condolence cards for the victims’ parents and loved ones.
Those cards can be sent to a special Post Office box set up by the U.S. Postal Service:
Messages of Condolence for Newtown
P.O. Box 3700
Newtown, CT 06470
“It makes people feel better to know that this isn’t just their grief; this is the nation’s grief,” Hudson-Tolles said. “Right now, the only thing that can help this is an outpouring of love and prayer. I really believe that.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.