A little girl hears the president say her name

By Jayson Jacoby December 19, 2012 09:56 am

My daughter Olivia, who’s 5, pointed at the TV and yelled to me.

“Obama said ‘Olivia,’ ” said Olivia.

She was right.

The president, with whom Olivia has been on a last-name basis since his first term, did say her first name during his speech that aired on a whole bunch of channels Sunday evening.

Mr. Obama wasn’t talking about my Olivia.

He was referring to Olivia Rose Engel.

She was a little girl who sounds an awful lot like my little girl, and never mind that they share a first name.

Olivia Engel was 6. Like my Olivia she was a big sister. Both Olivias are fond of pink and purple. Both took art classes and swimming lessons.

These two Olivias made silly faces when you took their photograph.

Probably they would have been friends had they ever met.

That never happened.

Now it won’t ever happen.

Olivia Engel was one of the 20 students fatally shot last week by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

I don’t pretend to feel some uniquely strong sense of despair from this tragedy because my daughter has the same name, and the same goofy smile, as one of the Sandy Hook victims.

You don’t even need to be a parent to grieve at the loss of so much potential.

You only need to be human.

That said, the Connecticut massacre affected me in a way that Clackamas and Thurston and Columbine and the whole rest of the terrible litany of slaughter did not.

Mainly this was because of a photograph.

Probably you know the one I mean, as it’s become a symbol of the Sandy Hook shooting.

The students stand in a line, each little pair of hands resting on the narrow shoulders of the child just ahead.

The scene reminded me strongly of what I’ve seen when Olivia and her kindergarten classmates walk out of Baker High School.

Except for the fear.

The naked fear of a child for whom life will never be the same, never as innocent nor as good.

Olivia and the other kids never look that way when they gallop out to the parking lot.

Usually they’re giggling, most of them.

Which is how we want our kids to be all the time. Smiling and laughing and safe and secure, from the moment they bound into the living room in the morning, pleading for pancakes for breakfast, until the last glimpse we see of their faces after dark, blanket pulled up tight against their chins.

It doesn’t take a tragedy on the scale of Sandy Hook Elementary to scare a parent, of course.

It’s all too easy to succumb to the terrible lure of the daydream, to imagine your child run down in the street by a drunken driver, to watch, with nauseating clarity, as strong arms yank her into the abyss of an anonymous van.

You can ward off this fear with the reassuring magnitude of statistics, the lottery-like balm of odds measured in the millions to one.

But I suspect Olivia Engel’s parents must at some time have indulged in this mental calculus, that they never truly believed the worst could happen to their daughter, any more than anyone really expects they’ll win a jackpot.

Now their Olivia will always be 6.

I’ll watch my Olivia. I hope I’ll watch her graduate and marry and prosper and achieve everything she’s capable of.

I’ll remember when she was 6, a little girl who liked pink and purple and made the silliest face when we asked her to smile for the camera, and who never heard the president say her full name on TV.