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.
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