Like everyone else, Jennifer Huettner agonized last Friday. As the news from Newtown went from awful to unfathomable, she had special reason to worry.
Jennifer is Staples High School’s beloved, energetic Latin teacher. But for 11 years, starting in 1999, she taught at Newtown High School. She lives just minutes from the town, and remains closely connected to it.
After lunch on Friday — she ate alone in the language lab — someone said Ryan Lanza was the killer. Jennifer could not believe the news. She’d taught him for 4 years. “He’s a gentle soul,” she says. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
New information soon named Ryan’s brother Adam as the murderer.
Jennifer spent 3 years as Adam’s teacher.
“He had Asperger’s,” Jennifer says, confirming media reports. After being home schooled in 7th and 8th grades, Adam took freshman classes in a portable classroom at the high school. He was 13 years old.
“He didn’t want to be around people,” Jennifer explains. “Our goal was to get him back in the building.”
Adam’s mother Nancy would drop him off, then sit in the next room while Jennifer worked with him.
“He was very OCD. He’d clean the desk with Purell,” Jennifer remembers.
“He had a great ‘Latin mind.’ The language is very structured, and that fit well with him. He always knew the answers — but he wouldn’t say anything.
“The day he made his first joke, I almost cried.”
The next year, Adam moved into the high school building.
“He trusted me,” Jennifer says. “He started talking — that was a big thing. And he looked at me, with big eyes.” They were not the same eyes, she says, that the world has seen in “that horrible picture.”
Every day as a sophomore “he wore the same uniform: a blue shirt and khaki pants. He probably had 5 sets of them. The next year, it was a green plaid shirt.”
And — as Newtown students have reported — he always carried a briefcase.
“The hallways were narrow. It was difficult to walk through,” Jennifer says. “Adam would have his shoulder against the wall, with his briefcase out to protect him. He always took the same route, and never deviated from it.”
But, Jennifer says, “I never saw him lose it, or have a tantrum.”
Newtown students — like those she knows now at Staples High — are “very respectful of differences,” she says. “There was never any meanness or bullying. They’d ask Adam to sit with them.”
After 3 years Adam left Newtown, to take classes at Western Connecticut State University. Jennifer says he earned his GED there.
“I understand he dropped out of WesConn after 2 years,” Jennifer continues. “Then he sat in his basement for 2 years. Something happened.”
The Adam Lanza who killed his mother, 20 children and 6 adults — and then himself — “was not the Adam I knew,” Jennifer says. “It was very disturbing to hear he’d done this — to realize the impact he had on the world. I have no idea where this awful, horrible thing came from.”
Jennifer knew Adam’s mother Nancy, too. “She dragged me to Red Sox games — even though I’m a Yankee fan,” Jennifer says. “She always got great seats.” They went to New York together too.
Jennifer knew that Nancy grew up on a New Hampshire farm. But, Jennifer says, she never talked about guns.
As difficult as the past week has been, Jennifer has been buoyed by her classes. She told her Latin 4 students — ones she’s had for her 3 years at Staples — that she taught Adam, and that when she knew him, he wasn’t the monster he’s being portrayed as. They hugged her.
On Tuesday, when the “Good Morning Staples” TV show broadcast an emotional interview with 2 Newtown High students, Jennifer “bawled like a baby.” Senior Joe Greenwald immediately embraced her.
Jennifer loves Staples High School — and Newtown High. On Wednesday she did what she’s done for years: drove there to time a basketball game.
It was the Nighthawks’ 1st contest since the tragedy. Before tipoff, the gym was filled with hugs.
As friends and colleagues told Jennifer about the overwhelming support they’ve received from around the world, she cried with them.
The next morning, she was back teaching at Staples High School.
“I love Latin,” Jennifer says. “I love it here, and I love Newtown. Then I close my eyes, and I see the horror that went on last week. But I open them, and I know I have to be here for my kids.”
Just as she has been throughout 3 decades as a teacher. And as she was, for 3 years, for a student named Adam Lanza.