"A Note for Rachel Scott"

by Roger Rosenblatt


 Your Friends were shown on television, writing goodbye messages on the white casket provided for you. I hope you will not mind if a stranger writes a message of his own. Of course, this is a literary device (as a young writer, you will recognize it as such), a way of doing an essay on the thought your death evokes. But this is also for you alone, Rachel, dead at 17, yet ineradicable because of the photograph of your bright and witty face, now sadly familiar to the country, and because of the loving and admiring testimonies of your family.

Your dad said in an interview last week that while there were many legal and legislative questions to be answered in the aftermath of the Columbine High School murders, these did not touch "the deep issues of the heart." He was referring specifically to the forgiveness that he, your mother and stepfather were dredging up for Dylan and Eric; and he may also have been thinking about the two boys' deep issues of the heart, realized out of a terrible darkness, and about the nightmares of your schoolmates who survived &endash; all deep issues, reachable with great pain and difficulty.

But the deep issue I want to touch upon has to do with me and my colleagues &endash; journalists who, for all our recurrent, usually unattractive display of know-it-all confidence, occasionally come upon a story such as yours and recognize our helplessness before it. Most honest journalists will admit that they never really understand the events they attempt to organize and clarify, and that more often than not it makes a "better story," one that comes closer to the truth, to swim around in the mystery of things.

I, who have lived more then three times your years, have rarely understood the occurrences and the people in the world that I have pretend to give order to. Yet I write sentences that end in periods. An odd word, sentence, don't you think? It means an authoritative decision, a judgment, (one is sentenced in a courtroom), as well as a definite part of the language. Yet anybody who writes one knows that in reality sentences roll on and come to no conclusions; typically, they are questions disguised as answer, even cries for help.

So, Rachel, when I write, "This is what I want to tell you," please read, "This is what I want to ask": Where do we, who ply our trade in this magazine and elsewhere, find the knowledge of the unknowable? How do we learn to trust the unknowable as news &endash; those deep issues of the heart? The problem belongs both to us and to those we hope to serve. Journalists are pretty good at unearthing the undeep issues. Give us a presidential scandal, even a war, and we can do a fair job of explaining the explicable. But give us the killings at Columbine, and in an effort to cover the possibilities we will miss what people are thinking in their secret chambers-thinking, feeling &endash; about their own loves and hatreds, about the necessity of attentiveness to others, about their own children: about you, Rachel.

I have never believed that life is revealed in its cataclysmic moments, its "wake-up calls," but rather in repose, when people go about the quieter business of being who they are. Journalists tend to turn to where the noise is. One of the things your death bequeaths is a reminder to where the noise is not. One can tell far more interesting things about a crowd at a picnic then a mob in the streets, or about someone like you when you were writing poems and performing in school plays, or just dreaming without a sound, then when murder made you a "national symbol."

Your other bequest may be more useful still &endash; to journalists and everyone else. No life ends on a period, no matter how long it is lived. But your abbreviated life makes one especially aware of how much there is to the unknowable and untidy. In their private hours, your parents will imagine you as a wife, a mother, an actress in the movies or at the village playhouse. For myself, I see you married &endash; as my own daughter was married a year ago &endash; in a church ceremony the antipode of the one you were the center of last week.

The deeper unknowable, though, is who you were before the guns locked you into a sentence. The only question that ever ought to matter to my colleagues and our customers is the one we do not ask except in retrospect, after the guns or the scandal: Who are we all in silence &endash; at a table in the cafeteria, at a table in the library? What can journalists tell others about the mind we all share, the innocent mind and the murderous? That is the real news of your death. That is the news I want to remember next week, when Kosovo is over or not over, and CONGRESS DEBATES GUN CONTROL, and Al Hirt's trumpet is no longer heard.

I would like to have remembered it before Tuesday, April 20, when the news of the day supposedly brought you to light. Rachel, you were always in the light.

***An essay from the May 10, 1999 issue of Time Magazine***


(Memorial Web Site For Rachel Joy Scott)