We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation’s sixth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Bryce Wilson Stucki of Virginia Tech University and Hannah Moon of Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, New York. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. —The Editors
Four years ago in reading group we were discussing whether we wanted children. The students in the Virginia Tech honors program are an overworked bunch, and maybe bitter because of it. Almost no one said they wanted children. Though perhaps they were really afraid of curtailing their future careers, the stated reason was that the world was so awful that bringing someone into it would constitute an act of cruelty. Wars were mentioned, genocides and poverty, and more local concerns, like how people were still drinking slurry-contaminated water in Mingo County, West Virginia, across the state line.
The only person who offered a contrary opinion was Leslie, a girl with glasses and cracked red hair like dyed hay. I was surprised that Leslie spoke up because, based on how often I saw her around the dorm, she seemed like the most career-oriented one in the group. Leslie said that she wanted kids because no matter how bad things got it was always worth it to bring a child into the world, for the chance of making things better.
In cynical moments I wonder whether I remember that exchange so clearly because it was one of the last things I heard Leslie say, as opposed to something I would have remembered anyway given the wisdom in what she said and the passion with which she said it. Either way, I was struck by how she put herself against the group, something I wish I would do more often. But it is true that that was one of the last things Leslie said; about a week later she died in the Virginia Tech shooting, and that is still all I remember when I find myself thinking about her.
Those few days after the shooting are grotesque in my mind. The feeling is similar to how prisoners describe being in jail: surreal but with an acute pain reminding them it is not a dream. I remember seeing Shepard Smith deliver a report from the side of the road, seeing hundreds of State Troopers awaiting President Bush’s arrival at the airport, and eating breakfast while a grief counselor kept asking my friend and me if we were okay. We didn’t want help, we said, but thank you very much for the offer. On the night of the shooting, not even aware of the exact death count yet, we went into a field and shot off fireworks, watching them explode brilliantly in the night sky. Some of my friends had been scared to do it, but when I said I thought it was a good idea they changed their minds.
It is still hard to understand what happened. When I Google my school I see pictures of Seung-Hui Cho pointing a pistol at me; I feel ill, feverish. When I see that “Virginia Tech Massacre” is one of the top hits I wonder how outsiders think of it; frightening, horrible, and very far away. People do not ask me about the shooting anymore or laugh when I tell them I slept through it, but they still stop to ponder whether there is any significance to the fact that it happened on my birthday. I almost have a sense of humor about it now—Just my luck, I tell them!
Some days it does seem like the shooting is just another catastrophe in a long line of catastrophes, albeit with a more personal tinge. Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, the Towers? I sometimes think we log so many hours on Facebook just so we don’t have to deal with the bad news we are perpetually bombarded with. Maybe our narcissism is introversion or maybe we’ve just never had a reason to trust anyone else. Maybe we’ve internalized this post-9/11 paranoia so thoroughly we don’t even notice it anymore.
But a catastrophe is different when it is personal; it is easy to numb yourself when death is anonymous. But when a sweet, straw-headed girl from your dorm, whom you know, is shot just because she was around, you are forced to deal with it. When fear is no longer abstract, it is no longer possible to deal with it abstractly, no matter how long it takes.
I often wonder how that reading group conversation would go now. Would the opinion now be unanimous? Or would someone speak up? As Nikki Giovanni said the next day, we did not deserve a tragedy but we got one. And now we must say we will do better tomorrow. If we met again I would speak up, as I should have four years ago. We cannot afford to lose hope, I would say, we must believe we can make things better. Maybe I would be alone, but sometimes one is enough.