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Wounded teacher returns to classroom a year after Essex shootings

Susan Notes: As teachers and children get ready for a new year, I thought you might like to send good wishes to a Vermont teacher who survived a horrific gun attack in her school a year ago. And now, after a long recovery, she's headed back to school.

Jenky Snedeker
Essex Elementary School
1 Bixby Hill Road
Essex Junction, Vermont 05452

Aug. 24, 2007
By Adam Silverman

First-grade teacher Jenky Snedeker is preparing for the start of her school's fall term, just as she's done each August for 15 years.

Now, though, her simple tasks -- decorating a classroom, creating lessons, meeting students and parents and colleagues -- unfold with more meaning, through more struggle, and with more resolve.

For Snedeker, 53, the significance of the beginning of classes changed forever a year ago today, when an enraged, distraught gunman invaded Essex Elementary School and began firing. A colleague and friend, Alicia Shanks, was killed. Snedeker was gravely wounded and survived through luck, or chance, or both; a surgeon called her recovery a miracle.

Wounded physically and psychologically, she did not teach last year.

Another year is dawning. Parents are buying school supplies for eager youngsters. Teachers are meeting, holding open houses. In Essex, so many emotions are swirling, clashing even: grief, optimism, pain, determination, anxiety, hope.

Snedeker, whose experiences during last year's cross-town shooting spree were unlike anyone else's, has endured all those feelings and more: continuing physical pain and emotional scars; soul-searching about her profession and her fears; a desire to teach that ultimately overcame everything else.

"The big question for me is, 'Can I do this again?'" Snedeker said on a gray evening this week as she sat in City Hall Park in Burlington, following a 90-minute physical-therapy session. "And I think it's really going to take the kids' coming back to reassure me."

Wednesday is the first day of classes for the Essex Town School District's 1,300 K-8 students, 400 of whom attend kindergarten through second grade at Essex Elementary. Today, faculty and staff will gather at the school and elsewhere for private remembrances of last year's trauma.

As they continue to grieve and heal, the district's employees, especially those at Essex Elementary, say Snedeker's determination, her willingness to return, is moving and encouraging.

"To return from this type of tragedy is not something everybody can do," said Linda McKenna, a kindergarten teacher who has known Snedeker for 15 years. "As Jenky returns to school this year, she brings with her her individual gifts of creativity, spontaneity and leadership that we all missed very much. It's great to have the family back together again."

The shooting
Snedeker is a vibrant woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a wide smile that makes her eyes glitter. She walks with no apparent limp but with ongoing pain: The .45-caliber bullet entered her right rear hip, tore through her abdomen and smashed her pelvis. She used a wheelchair and then crutches for months.

Her composure is evident as she discusses, calmly but emotionally, the details of the shooting; the agonizing delay before police, fearing the assailant remained in the building, carried her to safety; and the difficult year that followed.

Snedeker was among 39 faculty and staff at Essex Elementary on Aug. 24, 2006, to prepare for the start of classes. At the same time, according to police and prosecutors, Christopher Williams was livid over his recent breakup with first-year schoolteacher Andrea Lambesis.

Williams borrowed a gun from a friend and tried to find Lambesis, according to authorities. He didn't, but he left behind a track of fear, violence and death. Killed were Lambesis' mother, Linda, 57, a popular elementary teacher in St. Albans, at her Essex townhouse, and then the beloved Shanks, 56, in her classroom at Essex Elementary. Snedeker and the friend, Chad Johansen, were wounded.

Williams, 28, has pleaded not guilty to a host of related charges, including murder and attempted murder. He is jailed at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield without bail pending trial, which has yet to be scheduled.

Snedeker remembers feeling the bullet's impact, the thoughts that ran through her mind, even the odd perspective she had on the classroom after she crumpled to the floor.

"When you're shot," she said, "you're in a different realm of existence. I was just wanting to live, waiting for help to come. I made peace with dying."

Community support
Tactical-unit police officers carried Snedeker to safety, an ambulance rushed her to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, and a team of medical personnel hurried her into emergency surgery to remove the bullet and repair extensive damage. Snedeker has praise for all her helpers.

Her parents and grown children came to Burlington from other states, but they couldn't stay indefinitely. So families of Essex Elementary students organized to provide Snedeker, who was single and living in Essex Junction, with whatever she might need.

"When I got out of the hospital I had a sheet in front of me that said if you need this, call this person," Snedeker said. "I had food, shopping, laundry (because I couldn't lift anything), company, yard work. That really got me through the hardest part."

For the first time in her teaching career, Snedeker missed the start of school. Snedeker attended a rededication of the school in early September, but reclaiming the building for herself proved far more challenging. At first she planned to return to her classroom in January, but the emotional toll was too high, she said.

"Initially, when I went back to the school, it produced some really traumatic reactions," Snedeker said as she tapped her right hand rapidly on her chest, a pounding like a racing heartbeat. "I wasn't ready. I knew I couldn't be the kind of teacher the kids deserved."

Encouragement poured in. A stack of cards and letters grew to several feet high. At Christmastime, the students in the first-grade class she would have taught gave her a quilt decorated with fabric handprints of each child. Snedeker visited the classroom on the final day of the school year.

Ready to teach
And now she's back, as always this time of year, preparing for her work caring for and educating youngsters. She couldn't leave the profession, she decided. She couldn't leave Essex.

"My love of teaching has not diminished," she said. "I'm surrounded by other amazing teachers. It's such a talented, caring group. My goal is to make every day a meaningful one in the life of my students."

There are still unanswered questions, raw nerves, trauma Snedeker is addressing.

"Why did I survive and Alicia died? I don't know. The doctor said it was a miracle. The bullet was a millimeter away from everything," she said. "I'm not running around thinking someone's going to shoot me, but when I see a volatile situation I do worry about someone pulling out a gun."

Having a classroom full of children -- 17 this year -- will help Snedeker in her own healing, she said. That's when her mission transforms to taking care of others.

Teachers and district leaders say Snedeker's return will boost and encourage everyone.

"It will help all of us. She'll be a good role model for people for healing, for everything," Superintendent Jim Fitzpatrick said. "She is an incredibly strong person. She will make us all even stronger. Her attitude and outlook has been remarkable.

"This marks a year of loss and grief," he continued. "For a lot of people it's a culmination of all of that. It's also a new beginning for all of us. It's a way to move on. It's the end of one cycle and the beginning of another, of renewal, as it always is this time of year, just with new meaning."

As her colleagues gather today for memorials and reflections, Snedeker will be at home, as she needs to be on this day, for private contemplation, she said.

"I'm a different person, but you still grow, adapt, enjoy life," she said. "The anniversary is important. Everybody is in a different place with healing and moving on. I just need to not be at the school."

Instead, Snedeker will call her children.

— Adam Silverman
Burlington Free Press


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