- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

With today’s razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics, gizmo games and instant reality-TV fame, it’s pretty difficult to wow young people.

However, this week presented several teaching moments for a few students who discovered or reaffirmed for themselves that some of the best things in life are free and simple, although we often take them for granted.

Jarreau Williams, my cousin and a junior at Virginia Tech, pledged to a lifelong mission of service — “to live for 32” — after participating in the anniversary memorials for the 32 students and teachers slain a year ago on the Blacksburg campus.

“I’m definitely going to get involved in the student government,” Jarreau said. He is already a member of the Black Psychology Association but wants “to have an effect on a larger scale in the overall Hokie community.”

Meanwhile, Mike Flynn, my journalism student at Catholic University and student director of the campus radio station, learned to appreciate his religious freedom and good fortune. He was standing on the South Lawn of the White House awaiting the arrival of President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI when “it hit me like a ton of bricks, this was going to be awesome.”

Two other Catholic media majors, Michael Haigis and Kelly Hanahan, gained new respect for the First Amendment, freedom of the press and the risks that some journalists take while gathering the news. They were awestruck as they, along with Mike, wandered through the newly opened Newseum on Wednesday afternoon.

The Newseum is offering free tours to student groups. The biggest buzz a teacher gets comes at those unexpected moments when you can tell, through the look in students’ eyes, the upswing in their voices and their passionate comments, that suddenly they have put the pieces of lectures, handouts and exercises together and arrived where the teacher has been trying to lead them for months.

I’d never seen Mike wearing anything but a sweat shirt, jeans, a backpack and baseball cap — he’s an avid Boston Red Sox fan. So when a tall, slim young man, resembling a cub reporter, appeared at the entrance to the Newseum wearing a suit, white shirt and red tie, I initially walked by him.

“What a tremendous event to be a part of,” said Mike, who is writing about his White House experience for the Tower, Catholic University’s student paper.

He “got chills” and “a little choked up” when he helped sing “Happy Birthday” to the pope. He was still excited about standing “on the same ground as the leader of our country and our church,easily the most incredible thing I have ever been a part of.”

Mike says he now understands what I meant in class when I said that, as a journalist, you are afforded a front-row seat to special events and it is your responsibility to come back and tell those who could not be there all the details of what happened.

“It was a few hours of my life that I will never forget,” he said, as he shared the program guide and firsthand details.

Just like so many of the journalists who wrote the front-page stories we mulled over in the cavernous new museum to the Fourth Estate on Pennsylvania Avenue, the displays more than make the point that “journalism is the first rough draft of history,” as The Washington Post’s Philip Graham once said.

One of the most poignant items, however, was not the crumbled, rusty antennas that topped one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, but the tissues in chrome-plated boxes placed strategically throughout this moving, memorial wing. You might need to grab a couple after listening to the stories and looking at the phenomenal photographs and dusty camera equipment belonging to Bill Biggart, who lost his life covering the terrorist attacks.

While that commemoration left my students momentarily speechless, they were also taken aback by the spectacular, sunny panoramic view of the city from the terrace of the Newseum. So was yours truly, a native Washingtonian.

Hundreds of miles away on the emotional Virginia Tech campus, Jarreau was taking part in another spectacular view. This one sunny but sad. Of the 32 victims of the massacre, he had met only Henry Lee, a friend of one of his roommates.

When he first woke up Wednesday at the same time of the first shooting in the dormitory last year, Jarreau said, he just went back to sleep because classes had been canceled. He woke again at 9:30 a.m. — the same time shots were fired in Norris Hall last year, while he was walking across campus.

“That’s when everything started to hit me, and I realized that I am not as over it as I thought I was,” said Jarreau, a psychology and theater arts major.

Although Jarreau attended the vigils on campus, he deliberately avoided television coverage and tried to stay to himself “so I could sort some things out for myself.”

He spent more time contemplating how he can follow in the footsteps of the victims, many of them freshmen, who had done a lot on campus in their short tenures.

During one commemoration, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, said “the world had been cheated” on April 16, 2007, by the loss of these lives.

“That really affected me and touched me most. It set something off in me that I need to do more, not only for myself but to honor those people whose lives were lost,” Jarreau said.

Who needs expensive Wii games, when free, simple, life-altering experiences can still bedazzle today’s young people.

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