February 1, 2009
The postcards started arriving last week, and every day Kate Braser tapes a few more on the windows of her office in the Campus Life building at Northern Illinois University.
"I filled up my sister's car with gas.""My roommate was feeling down so I gave him a hug."
"I heard that a friend I haven't seen in years is going through a hard time. I sent her a care package."
Inscribed on each white card is a good deed, some small, generous act that serves as a counterpoint to the huge, dark thing that a year ago turned a placid campus in the small Illinois town of DeKalb into an international spectacle.
Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008, just after 3 p.m.
Every student who was there remembers.
Dina Bach was walking out of class early, toward the student center, when other students rushed toward her, looking back. She heard the word "shooting."
David Hansell, oblivious, was riding his bike back to his dorm. When a friend phoned with the news at 3:15, he looked out the window at a crowd of students clutching cell phones.
Arielle Christine Payne was sitting at a computer in the nursing building when someone rushed in and said the incomprehensible. She thought it was a joke until she checked the school Web site, which warned her not to go outside.
Cole Lightfoot was walking down a hill toward the lecture hall when he saw students darting out, crying and screaming.
From the tempest of rumors -- there were two shooters, three, he was black, he was white, he wore a ski mask or didn't -- the facts finally settled. A graduate student named Steven Kazmierczak had walked into Geology 104 in Cole Hall. He carried three handguns and a shotgun. He left five students dead, 18 people wounded. He killed himself.
Most students rarely talk about that day anymore, at least according to Bach, Hansell, Lightfoot and Payne. If they notice the extra police cars on campus, it's without fear. Campus doors are unlocked again during the day and evening, a return to normal that makes them feel secure.
But no one who was there has forgotten, and as Feb. 14 approaches, the memories surface, the tension mounts and questions loom: How do you commemorate horror in a way that honors the dead without reviving the pain for the living? How do you simultaneously mourn and hope, look back and keep moving on?
Lightfoot, Hansell, Payne and Bach are part of the honors program run by Braser, who asked students to come up with a way to mark the day. They wanted something that would speak to a wide swath of a big, diverse school, to freshmen who weren't around when the shooting happened, to anyone who might be distressed by the official memorial and vigil, the candles and the speeches.
They also wanted something that would tap into the open-heartedness that flourished on campus and in the community after the shootings.
So a couple of weeks ago they began distributing 4,000 postcards. One side of each card recalls the five students who died: "A reliable fraternity brother; a 20-year-old recognized for her deep faith; a young woman who mentored others who shared her Hispanic background; a former soldier studying to be a teacher and an Honor student planning to be a counselor."
The other side is left blank for a "Huskie act of kindness."
"We can't erase what happened," says Braser, "but this is a better representation of who these students are and how they want their campus to be known."
On Feb. 14, all the cards will go on display in the student center. Until then, Braser will tape them to her windows, hoping that all these little cards add up to something bigger than the thing that occasioned them.
"I shoveled my elderly neighbors' driveway every time it snowed."
"I took the time to help a classmate who was very nervous for her test to study, even though I really needed that time to work on my homework."
"I took the time to write thank you letters to people who went the extra mile to help me out with little things this week."
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