February 14, 2008 at 3:05pm, Steven Kazmierczak open fired a shotgun and three pistols in Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University (NIU), DeKalb, Illinois. He killed 5 individuals, wounded 17, and then took his own life.
I was a few months shy of 16 and a sophomore in high school when Kazmierczak took away so much of my innocence and the innocence of my community. He forever scarred the city I grew up in and the university that would give me my education, my friends, and my husband. Ten years later it still hurts, but I can see the power of my community and the power of the human spirit.
I found out what happened when I came home from school and saw my mother glued to the television set. My older brother went out frantically looking for his girlfriend, an NIU student, because cell towers were overloaded and he couldn’t get ahold of her. Relatives from states away called our landline asking if we were okay.
On my way to dance class that night, helicopters filled the sky. Places I played, places that were the backdrop of my memories, were seen on the news as candlelight vigils were held. My husband was an NIU student at the time and his hurt is much different from mine. A hurt I have no place to try and describe.
It wasn’t until my own junior year at NIU that Cole Hall was finished being remodeled and opened for classes. The auditorium in which the shooting took place was turned in a computer lab where I learned about “Nonprofits in the Digital Age.” Outside the windows are a monument to the five students whom were never able to take their walk across the stage for their diplomas: Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace, Daniel Parmenter, and Gayle Dubowski. Along with their names is a phrase from our Huskie fight song “Forward, Together Forward.”
Those words have become the solace of our community and the motto on which we move on. From murals to marquees the words are often seen at various times of the year. They’ve become so ingrained in our community that children too young to remember the tragedy take them for granted and have little idea what they mean.
Valentine’s Day across the country is filled with chocolate, flowers, and fancy meals, but it is much more somber here. Sure, many still celebrate in traditional ways, but over the day each year a shadow hangs. A moment of silence and laying of wreaths become infinitely more important when 3:05pm rolls around.
As sad as February 14th can be in our community, it is also a day filled with a lot of love for eachother. Everything seems a little more peaceful. Everyone seems to be a little more giving. With all the memories of hurt that come back, so do the memories of goodness. The goodness of the first responders that made it to campus within minutes of the shooting. The goodness of the cards, letters, and flowers sent to us from around the world. The goodness of comfort dogs and grief counselors that were made available of campus. The goodness and kindness that we all showed to each other without hesitation or expectation. The goodness that was our home.
Ten years later, time has healed no wounds. No amount of time can bring back the lives of those students or the innocence of our community. But our community can build a loving home, a stronger resolve, and happy memories.