Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reporting a homicide

May 18, 2008

It’s late Sunday morning in the rural West, and I'm realizing that my primary lesson has veered slightly off-course, as I look at one fifth-grader sitting atop another on the church lawn.

We’re doing the lesson on Ammon and King Lamoni (Alma 17-20). A good time to let their play-acting skills loose, I figured.

Playing Lamoni's servant was slightly pudgy but athletic Killian Asbury, the blond-haired tenth child of the police lieutenant's son. He straddles Ammon - that is, Blake Balderston, the brown-haired, more sticklike, glasses-wearing younger son of a dentist.

I should have thought this one out more, I realize as I watch their innocent jubilance distract from the message at hand.

Nine hours later, my editor at the small-town paper where I’m interning gives me a call: there’s been a murder. I’m to cover it. A high school kid went Saturday to visit his girlfriend, two-and-a-half hours away. In the night, someone – it looks like her ex – broke into the house and stabbed both of them to death.

I’m a nineteen-year-old kid. These kids are – were – eighteen.

It’s the first time I’ve ever written something like this; I settle into a dark mood. I begin to feel like I had known the kid who was killed; I realize I must keep up that feeling to properly memorialize him. “I had to sympathize with those who grieved,” I write in my journal on Wednesday.

As I look at the sentence, it comes like a flash into my mind. I knew that already. Well, I knew the words. The King Benjamin lesson I taught a few weeks ago: mourn with those who mourn. Comfort those who stand in need of comfort.

Objectivity sounds great in the newsroom, a former intern – now a professional South Texas reporter – had told me when I started. It’s easy to talk about in the classroom, she said. It’s a lot different for her, when she’s in the field talking to a penniless illegal and the woman asks her for money.

It’s different for me when I’m calling the friends of a kid who died young, the third in his small high school class.

I call Sister X, a teacher at the high school. Did you know Andrew? I talk to her nephew: you and Andrew went out bowling every weekend last summer? Who won?

I talk to the band president. You were there when Andrew met his girlfriend? Really? Your teacher introduced them? That’s pretty cool.

The principal gives me the name of Andrew’s best friend, who I look up in the phone book. Can I talk to Kyle? No, his dad replies, he’s golfing with his friends. They’re remembering Andrew. I’m a reporter with the local paper, I say. I’m trying to remember Andrew, get an idea of what he was like. The dad’s tone chills to ice. I’ll give him your number, he says.

I laugh along with their stories of hard work in woodshop and crazy hair colors. Then I ask the hard questions: what does it feel like when your friend is murdered? (Andrew was the third kid in this high school class to die) Along the way, I settle into someone different than I’d been the previous week: less impartial observer, more mourning community member. I suffocate thoughts of self-congratulations, even after I work 30 hours in two days and write seven pieces, a personal record for productivity.

Having a few hours free late Tuesday morning, I walk over the courthouse, to attend a meeting of the county supervisors. I sit next to the lively chairwoman of the grand jury, in my usual position, but fail to assume my normal bantering self. Probation funding? 6.75 FTE’s or 9.42 FTEs? My brain zones out – much more than normal – as my soul exclaims despairingly: how is this important? Why does this matter?

Gradually, I shed the feeling and concentrate at the story at hand, asking the supervisors questions, joking with the audience members. I write the story, and must then deal with the opposite problem: preparing for the evening candlelight vigil. Settling into the solemnity and despair-tinged tunnel vision of grief.

I see the city clerk at the vigil, sobbing. Should I hug her? Would that be unprofessional? Presumptuous? I turn away, hoping she didn’t see me.

I happen to flip back onto my lesson. The Lamanites have just been stealing King Lamoni’s flock, and a phrase jumps out at me. Alma 17:29.

“Now (the servants) wept because of the fear of being slain. Now when Ammon saw this his heart was swollen within him with joy; for, said he, I will show forth my power unto these my fellow-servants, or the power which is in me, in restoring these flocks unto the king, that I may win the hearts of these my fellow-servants, that I may lead them to believe in my words.”

It seems a bit like a non sequitur, a friend opines. But maybe in the grand scheme of things, the message that he was able to bear was a lot bigger than the problems over the sheep.

That’s what I was thinking, I reply. The message was what he could bring to the table, and he was full of joy because the troubles gave him the chance to share it.

For me, the front page of the paper, twice a week was what I could bring to the table. It might be a lot smaller than the trouble that happened. It is, I know. I’m just a small cog in the wheel here. But I should be joyous that I can help, and then go and work in the little part I am granted, in remembrance.

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