Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Answering Questions That Shouldn't Need To Be Asked...

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

- Wilfred Owen, "Anthem for Doomed Youth," 1917

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) - It was an Amtrak operator who first discovered the girl's body, limp alongside the bed of the train tracks early Saturday morning.

The girl, according to what little is known, had been drunk and abandoned by friends to the unseasonably cold Ohio night. No one will ever know why, exactly, the 19-year-old was wandering the streets alone, why she was wandering the streets alone at night, about a mile from her campus dorm room.

Her blood alcohol level, according to local authorities, hovered somewhere near twice the legal limit, somewhere above 0.229 percent. Under Ohio law, 0.08 percent is considered legally impaired.

Her hands were covered in black exes and other bar markings, indicating that she was a minor. Though it's now known that she'd been drinking at a house party prior to hitting the Uptown district, it's highly unlikely that she didn't find some way of obtaining booze while at the bars.

The driver of the southbound CSX train didn't even realize that he'd hit anything when he was notified in nearby Hamilton. His locomotive had passed through Oxford 90 minutes prior to the Amtrak train.

Sometime in the next week, the family of a 19-year-old Speech Pathology major will bury their daughter in Strongsville, a suburban Cleveland city of almost 44,000 residents.

Beth was in her first year at the Local U. She'd transferred earlier in the year. Her Facebook profile picture was one of a smiling, happy girl, embracing some other smiling, happy girl.

I teared up up looking at the face of yet another dead college student.

* * * *

I've seen many dead college students over the course of my short life.

I've seen the gleeful face of a murdered Wyoming student plastered across the television screen, a young man executed for simply being open about his sexuality. At Cal Poly, as an undergrad and as a reporter, I covered the kidnappings, torture and deaths of two classmates.

And I still don't talk much about the shooting at Northern Colorado during my first ol' college try, the one where my friends and I sat in a dining hall and watched the CNN footage of a madman shooting from the windows until he was finally brought down by a police sniper.

Many people throw out completely jingoistic garbage about the College Experience.

Going to college is the only way to succeed in America, going to the right school can get you that dream job, or a college education will improve your life, help you make friends, help you grow into a responsible adult.

Those people, in their over-zealousness, often forget to explain the darker side. Maybe they don't know or maybe they just don't care.

Going to college, in the United States, can get you killed.

* * * *

In Blacksburg, they're mourning the loss of their fallen comrades, too. But it's not merely a young girl who wandered in front of a trail on a cold night, not merely an accident.

Thirty-three dead. Students and faculty, noted scholars and budding, bright young minds.

According to official accounts, there was only one gunman, one very angry, disturbed young man - he, too, is one of the dead students who will never see another graduation day.

Virginia Tech now joins a solemn club within higher education. Like Kent State and the University of Texas, like Jackson State and Cal State Fullerton, another university will bury its butchered scholars - its aspiring musicians, its writers, its poets and scientists.

No championship football season, no amount of Nobel Prizes or Rhodes Scholarships, will replace what that university lost on that cold Monday in April. None of those things have ever, after all, resurrected the dead.

A phantom stain will forever haunt its campus, the imaginary smell of blood hovering above its classrooms and dormitories. And no amount of scrubbing, no amount of vigils, memorials, or university committees will ever remove that, no amount of administrative or political whitewashing will ever erase that from the collective memory of those who survived.

* * * *

Already, the finger-pointing and politicization has begun about what happened in that quiet Appalachian town this week, the analysts and pundits spouting off about every scapegoat imaginable:

It's the guns. No wait! It's the meds the kid was taking, the failure of the psychologists. I've got it! It's another dangerous foreigner. No, no, no - listen to me! My causes are next! It's the lack of God in this country! We need prayer!

We need better campus police! It's the NeoCons, the Liberals, the President! The War in Iraq caused this! Let us protest...yes, a protest will save us!

Absalom, Absalom! Let us find answers quickly, my Countrymen! The pain is too much! Our children are dead, and we must assign blame...

And they will offer every theory imaginable, to sell their books, to move their causes forward, to maybe, possibly, legitimately do some good. But they will never provide any answers. And we'll all chose sides, divvy up our opinions like vultures along a roadside, picking and choosing theories based on how secure and comfortable they leave each of us feeling.

No one will ever know, truly, what went through a lonely South Korean kid's mind before he put a bullet through it, ending his rampage through Blacksburg.

And no one, here, in Oxford, will ever really know why that 19-year-old girl ended up in front of that CSX freight train, either.

Of course, her death won't make the national or international headlines. Death, in the press, is measured in terms of spent ammunition and body counts.

Ask the analysts.

* * * *

No one should even try to fool themselves into thinking that America's college campuses are the literal ivory towers they sometimes appear to be. There is no sanctuary from the cold reality of our world, not in Blacksburg and not in Oxford.

Senseless death is just as much a part of the college experience, for way too many campuses, as overpriced textbooks and cheap-tasting dining hall food. Estimates place alcohol-related campus fatalities at roughly 1,500 per year. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as 24,000 attempt suicide each year - the equivalent, roughly, of the entire campus population of the Local U., including faculty and staff - and another 1,100 succeed where the 24,000 thankfully failed.

We are, and will probably continue, to be a violent culture, societally schizophrenic in how we choose to look at how we live, and why we make the choices we do, and why certain things happen to good and bad people alike.

In America, on its pristine college campuses and in its libraries, through our literature and film, we fight a war as old as humanity itself, a war within ourselves, a war to both love and despise thy neighbor, a war to understand life and death from mortal coil.

Most importantly, we fight our own battles, daily, to simply find comfort in the answer to the Question Why?.

Our war, our wretched internal cultural war full of moral relativity and World Superpower pragmatism and self-pandering, never reaches its zenith and never will.

One cannot win any war against a mirror reflection, an inverse version of one's self, revealing all of the flaws one refuses, through ignorance or denial, to even acknowledge. There must first be acceptance of what answers lie beneath the glass, the things we fear or are afraid to admit to ourselves.

Why? questions are never answered simply by declaration. The why? questions must be thought about first, and then asked.

Why? questions, in Blacksburg and here, offer no easy answers. But the more we think about them, the more we ponder holistically, asking before answering, the more solutions to problems we may be able to unearth.

There are no experts of human nature better at answering these types of questions than ourselves, and that responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of each and every one of us. It is our duty, as the living, to ask questions for the dead, to find education beyond Finals Weeks, nostalgic alumni memories, beyond everything and anything that could possibly be taught in a classroom.

That is what college students are supposed to learn in college - the ability to think, to ask, and to answer. They shouldn't have to learn, in a civilized world, how to lay wreaths on the headstones of peers, to look for shelter at the sound of gunshots.

Maybe, one day, we can live in a world, or can at least be able to send children to college, without worrying about that.

* * * *

What candles may be held to speed them all?

There aren't enough candles in all the world.

- # # # -


Cat. said...

I've been waiting for your take on the VTech killings since I heard about them. Never thought you'd have a smaller but just as horrifying, harmonic story in Ohio.

I don't have any answers, just as I don't have the right words to express my sadness.

Thanks for yours.

coyotemike said...

Before the bodies are cold, the vultures come out.

peace, war, guns, meds, love, hate . . . nobody wants to admit that the mad are among us. That sometimes, a person is pulled into the darkness that lurks inside the mind, and cannot come back out to the rational world, no matter what drugs they are given, no matter how many counselors they talk to.

There are other things I want to say, but they come off in my head as vulture-ic as the other people. Things like: where are the candlelight vigils for the poor girl raped in her dorm room? does it really take death on a large scale to wake people up?

There have been deaths of students on my campus as well . . . but the only notice taken is a brief e-mail sent to all faculty.

The death of a student due to the availability of alcohol to those underage is as much a sign of problems as someone who worked within the system to legally aquire guns, then misused them.
Blame cannot be assigned for a damaged mind.

I've probably gone off of what I meant to say, but the words are coming out.

Thank you for putting forth so eloquently what many of the rest of us are struggling to bring to light.

And I will not forget the smiling girl.

zydeco fish said...

I hadn't heard about this girl's death. It's tragic. It's been a terrible few days. This was a very moving post.

The ZenFo Pro said...

Sadly, this is the second alcohol-related train accident in Oxford in the last three years. The previous student, according to what I now, is still comatose.

Honestly, I don't trust anyone who claims to have answers anymore. I distrust the spin.

And you're welcome. I wish I had a better subject to write about, actually.

You know, I don't know which is more sad, really... the fact that, well, one college will bury its students, or the fact that everyone and their mother seems to be groping for a way to exploit the deaths for their own agendas.

And yeah, where are those mass vigils for everything else, too? I don't think that comes off as vulturistic at all - the problem, I 've found, locally at least, is the failure by some folks to realize that there is no one magic pill that can make everything go away, there is no sugarcoating things to make things sound more academic or detached from the holistic nature of these problems.

You're just bringing ideas to the table. Nothin' wrong with that.

Basically, it's not just one thing that's fucked up that folks can point a finger at and assign blame. Blaming's the easy part.

Dude, thanks. I decided I'd write about it, mainly because it was so under-covered, even locally.

Anonymous said...

"Going to college, in the United States, can get you killed."

So can driving on the interstate.

I have better chances of survival on campus...

The ZenFo Pro said...

Wow. Such wit. So tell me...

Were you just born cold hearted, or did that sort of snide remark take years of living under a rock to produce?

Lol, and to think there are people who say I should turn off the anon. comments function...

The ZenFo Pro said...


I guess I should point out that I'm not in any mood, nor under any obligation, to debate various issues surrounding the VT incident or to play nice when it comes to sarcastic or cynical comments. But if you want to add to the discussion, feel free. Comments are open to all.

But please be aware that the girl in question was a local college student and that I frequently have local college students read this web site, as well as students from other universities. I grew up in Virginia and know many, many great people who've attended Tech and the Local U., offline too.

For all I know, some of those directly affected could be reading. If I feel a comment is overly insensitive or snarky, well, I might just lay the smack down.


Anonymous said...

thanks. that was just touching and a reality check.

SeizeTheNite said...

I suggest that anonymous goes for a nice long ride on the interstate....

Anyway, nice job on this one, it's much better to hear it from someone who actually has some experience with current college culture instead of some clueless old man on TV.

What upset me most was seeing a clip on TV (from FOX News I believe) where some "newsman" blamed the male students at Virginia Tech for the incident. He claims they shoud have acted like "real men" and "taken the gunman down". I guess it's much easier to blame the victims and an obviously seriously disturbed young man instead of taking a look at what the real problem is.

The ZenFo Pro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The ZenFo Pro said...


Actually, I think I'm completely fed up with the talking heads.

Just proves to me that, yes, we're afraid to face our own bogeymen amongst us... we'd rather just stick our heads in the sand and let somebody else tell us what to think, nod and smile, and wait for somebody else to fix some rather screwed up shit.

I really don't understand that.

HuneeB said...

Jason I really wish you wrote more than this blog, I truly enjoy reading you. :) You have a real talent you know.

As for VT, my dearest sincere thoughts go out to them, their families, friends and loved ones.

I do have a problem however with the sensationalism and blatent disrespect the media procures when incidents like this happen...

HuneeB said...

I remember that at Cal Poly as well; all too often it happens here and never makes the paper like the girl and the train. Here it's mainly b/c of the old and new money, that and the drive to keep the local area a rotten tourist trap.

Steph said...

What a beautiful piece you've written here.
I've just viewed the horrid tapes that Cho sent to NBC. It's horrific and chilling and so very sad.

My heart goes out to all the victims families.

Jacob said...

I don't really know what to say to this, that is for sure.

The best thing I've read on this sir.

The ZenFo Pro said...

Anon 2:
Sorry I missed you earlier.

You're very welcome.

Well, I may have a few more offline things in th works, actually. Inspired partly by Pia Savage at Courting Destiny, I'm experimenting with getting back into possibly magazine writing.

The media coverage I understand, partly because of my journalism background. I agree with a few of the news agencies that, say airing the tape the first time was just responsible reporting of a breaking story, especially on NBC's part (Brian Williams proved that he belongs behind the anchor's desk with his disclaimer), and that the constant viewing probably is a bit much. But the over-analysis of every angle...

Oh the Central Coast is just chock full of things hidden, too, definitely. I remember getting nasty phone calls for a radio piece I did on how the homeless were being treated on the Central Coast... apparently, even admitting that not everyone can afford million dollar homes was detrimental to the community...

Hey, thanks, chica. Yeah, it's horrid stuff.

Thanks. Trust me, I know the feeling about not knowing what to say...

The local student who died? She died the week after we dedicated a monument to three other students who died in a fire (alcohol-related, as well) here. Very tragic all around...

HuneeB said...

Please do send a note my way when said offline things happen... and the Central Coast, yeah, it's really sad that it is this way. So much good could happen if more people exposed it, talked about and-or at least admitted it existed!

cooper said...

You do know I think you write brilliantly. I have nothing to offer here but to read.

You were more or less my sounding board.

Anonymous said...

I love the blog that you have. I was wondering if you would link my blog to yours and in return I would do the same for your blog. If you want to, my site name is American Legends and the URL is:


If you want to do this just go to my blog and in one of the comments just write your blog name and the URL and I will add it to my site.


The ZenFo Pro said...

Lol, I will. Actually, I'll be posting about a bit more realistic view of life on the Central Coast, a bit of a random flashback.

Lol, chica. No worries. Feel free to bounce off of me at any time ;)

Thanks. I'll check it out...and consider adding you to the blogroll.

HuneeB said...

Jason that should be interesting...we'll see if I have anything good to say about it/add. ha.