Posts Tagged Matthew Shepard

Communities grieve in tragedy’s wake

It’s been over a year since I arrived at IU. To say the least, it has been an interesting year: every place I’ve ever lived in has been dragged through the media muck and is now stained a slightly different color.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the days when Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and left for dead just outside Laramie. Suddenly, and without any warning, a community I grew to love and appreciate over my six-year stay was splashed across the front page of the New York Times and the Indiana Daily Student, to name a few newspapers, when the story broke.

Having been a resident of Laramie, I read the media’s accounts of the town with a great deal of interest, even at times pausing to wonder if the reporters had visited the same town and state that I know and love so much.

They talked about this town, calling it homophobic, racist, and drunk, casting the image in such pall that I found it difficult to imagine that they were talking about the same one I lived in. It is one with a great university that has a great legacy, a warm homecoming parade Saturday morning, and a strong sense of community.

The attention on my adopted home hurt: I love Laramie and I love Wyoming. Ultimately I would love to return to the Cowboy state, a state whose residents, like those of Indiana, have a strong sense of being, who they are and the historical legacy of their state.

The second blow to my personal geography came last spring, when Denver was dragged through the muck: Columbine High School and the two gunmen. Suddenly while flipping past CNN I thought I recognized the two people sitting behind the anchor desk and on the air: people I had watched on the news while growing up. It was CNN rebroadcasting KCNC, the CBS station out of Denver.

This time, though, the media did not blame the city; instead they tried to search for an explanation. It did not matter in the end: Denver still came off looking like a “cow town,” a backward place that encouraged gun-slinging, much like the Old West.

In one sense, Colorado is very much unlike either Wyoming or Indiana. The residents have absolutely no sense of place, being or history. Nobody in Colorado cares because they all just moved in from somewhere else; usually California.

The last blow came on July 4 when Won-Joon Yoon was killed by Benjamin Smith in Bloomington. Ironically, it took me far longer to learn about this news story than to learn about the other two. It was not until I was on my way home from Bloomington’s parade that I had to detour around the three satellite news trucks that surrounded the Korean United Methodist Church on Third Street, along with the yellow police crime-scene ribbon that I had only seen on television before.

Since I actually live here right now, it is more difficult for me to know how Bloomington came across in the national media. From what I can tell, though, it has not hurt Bloomington’s national image significantly. Perhaps this was because Smith’s crime wave was exactly that: a crime wave. It ran across two states, killed two people and hurt a number of others. The real news in this case, as it turned out, was the murder of Ricky Byrdsong, Northwestern University’s former basketball coach, in Skokie, Ill.

Bloomington was left to grieve for Yoon.

The images that the media chooses to push upon the public can lead to powerful effects in the imagination and memories of the viewers and readers. Whether in Laramie, Denver or Bloomington, reporters who fly into town for 48 hours to write a story often miss the essence of the situation. The facts may be right, but the picture is left incomplete. At best it leaves an image that is only slightly distorted, at worst the foundation of the community is damaged, forcing an already hurt community to dig deeper to fix its emotional scars.

The soul searching starts at home, and Laramie is about to be dragged through the muck again as jury selection starts for Aaron McKinney, the second of the men accused of murdering Shepard, this week. When you read the news stories over the next month, pause to remember that the citizens of Laramie were not responsible: McKinney and his friend Russell Henderson are the culprits.

The citizens of Laramie, like the citizens of Denver and Bloomington, are not to blame for their community’s notoriety; they are, however, working on the healing of their community.

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Lessons learned at IU

This is my last column of this school year and the last column of my first year in Bloomington. The opportunities for this final column are endless, yet I’ve chosen to write about what I’ve learned in my first year at IU in Bloomington.

After coming to this conclusion, one of my wise-cracking friends suggested that I convince the editors of the IDS to run 15 inches of empty space. What’s really pathetic is that I actually considered this idea for awhile.

What I really have learned is that Indiana University, although three-and a-half times larger than the University of Wyoming, is not really all that different.

Freshmen attending IU are just like freshmen attending UW: scared, unsure and learning to explore the world. Virtually every freshman goes through culture shock of one kind or another as they make their transition from their hometown high school to the University.

Universities cannot coddle freshmen too much, but both IU and UW excel at providing resources for freshmen living on their own for the first time. There is a fine line, though, between providing enough assistance and too much assistance. Too much assistance and it will be as if the freshmen never left the loving arms of their parents.

I’ve also been forced to learn that senseless death can happen anywhere in America: Whether IU’s Joseph Bisanz from an alcohol-related incident, or UW’s Matthew Shepard, beaten because he was gay. Neither one deserved to die nor should have died, but between the two, IU was forced to examine its drinking policies and UW was forced to examine the environment in which it exists.

It is also clear that when it comes to the quality of undergraduate education, there is less difference between IU and UW than one might suspect at first glance. I earned my bachelor’s degree in political science from UW in 1996. There I knew my professors personally, and they took as much time and effort to work with me as a freshman as they did when I was a senior, ensuring that I was learning.

The emphasis on the quality of teaching that I witnessed at UW is here at IU as well. Recently I listened to a professor talk about how one of his undergraduate courses was going, how a new approach to an old subject wasn’t quite working as well as he had hoped and that he would have to make some changes the next time he taught the course.

Another place where there is less difference between IU and UW than one might suspect is in the quality of the students. I believe that in the end, the quality of a student’s education is not necessarily determined by the quality of the academic institution, but is instead determined by the quality and character of the student.

You can be an incredibly smart person, but if you don’t have the character and drive to succeed, you’ll fail, whether you attend IU, UW or Harvard. If, on the other hand, you’re smart and you have the character and drive to succeed, you will become a success, even if you start by attending a community college.

In closing, I want to talk about the one lesson that I’ve learned from Luke Recker. Recker was a sophomore in high school when he made his decision to play for coach Bobby Knight and to attend IU. The lesson Recker taught me was that no 15-year-old kid should ever commit to attend any given university. You’re just too young to know what you really want. Recker did the right thing by deciding to move on before it was too late to switch.

I, on the other hand, am pretty sure that I’ve made the right choice. My experiences here at IU have been positive and worthwhile. I can assure you that I will be back in the fall for round two on my way to earning my doctorate. I also plan on writing for the IDS again.

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