Sometimes in life we encounter unmitigated horror as we come face to face with the darkest, most macabre events that our world has the capacity to produce. How we cope with life’s tragedies varies, of course. Some of us may be inclined to stare calamity down, stand in its way, and do what we can to mitigate its impact on the lives it touches. Others of us may be inclined to look away and keep some distance from painful images that are all too threatening. However we deal with these challenges, perhaps all of us have discovered that we can find some solace, some measure of comfort when we share our grief with others with a deep sense of connection and community. And that’s what we hear from eighteen-year-old Ryder Ferris.
I stood with a group in front of a photograph covering an entire wall. Bodies, burned black, lying in a hole. We all inched forward, drawn in by the utterly alien image of human beings that were unrecognizable. As we made our way through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, the horrors that these innocent people endured for years flashed by us.
I walked into the last part of the museum and, along with a few other high school students from the American Legion Boys Nation program, found myself in a massive room full of light: candles were in the corners, and there were huge glass panes across the ceiling that let in the sun. The center of the floor was illuminated. I saw the boy from Utah walk down the steps into the room, his eyes rimmed red. I walked towards him and put a hand on his shoulder; he wrapped me up in his frail arms and began to sob, his whole frame shaking.
I had never experienced anything like this sort of intensity. As we stood there, my silent tears joined his loud shudders. The tall boy from Washington State came over and enveloped us both; the boy from Wisconsin followed suit. Their eyes glistened with tears. We stayed like that for only a few moments, but in those moments the sunlight found us. It didn't burn, it simply warmed and comforted us. Here we were, boys from all across our nation connected by this remarkable, unforgettable moment. Boys who believe in different political ideologies and different religions. Boys who want to believe there is compassion in a world with such darkness. Within this tiny little moment in time, I felt hopeful for my future, our nation’s future, despite the frightening rhetoric, the countless shootings, the lack of compassion from too many corners of our world.
I find myself clinging to this moment, to the love felt between four boys who, until then, barely knew each other’s names. We were surrounded by images of the worst horror the human race has known, yet somehow our deep connection left me feeling that we will be all right.. Then, that precious moment was over. We untangled ourselves. The boy from Utah seemed embarrassed and started to apologize, but the rest of us just looked at him. Our eyes told him to stop, that there is no shame in these feelings. This is what it means to be human. We parted ways, tears still wet on our faces.
Ryder Ferris is a senior at Mt. Hope High School in Bristol, Rhode Island.