Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Essay becomes student's eulogy


Erin Peterson's profile page, guest book

CENTREVILLE, Va. -- After the death of her "Big Nanny," as Erin Peterson used to call her great-grandmother, the 6-foot-1-inch teenager known for her soft heart took a long time to grieve. She wrote an essay for one of her Virginia Tech classes she titled "Losing a loved one, gaining perspective."

As the Peterson family prepares to celebrate the life of a young woman who nurtured all those around her, they see the essay given to them by Peterson's professor as instructions she left for them. How to grieve for her, how to gain strength from losing her in last week's Virginia Tech shootings.

"She was such a strong spirit. She set the bar so high," said her mother, Celeste Peterson.

Peterson was remembered in the last week for her calm strength and her kindness, for her constant smiles and jokes, and for her determination in basketball at Westfield High School in Chantilly.

Peterson was in Norris Hall when 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting rampage that left 33 people dead at Virginia Tech.

Sitting in the family's two-story brown shingle home at the round kitchen table, where "everything used to happen," her mother remembers the 18-year-old calling from school a few days before the shootings. Her daughter, who called home every night and usually tried to conceal her homesickness, was crying.

After some words of wisdom from her mother, Peterson thanked her mom for picking up the phone, for being there. She said her mother and father were her best friends. She pleaded for them to visit her the next weekend, and her parents made the five-hour drive to Blacksburg.

"If I could just see my mom and dad," she had told her roommate in the dorm, according to her mother, "I can make it through the semester."

As an international studies major at Virginia Tech, Peterson's strong moral compass made her want to make a difference in the world; her golden heart roused a sensitivity for victims of Katrina and the Asian tsunami, said her cousin, Tracey Littlejohn.

She already was proficient in French and it was in that class where she and another 2006 Westfield High graduate, Reema Samaha, were killed.

Samaha's funeral was Monday; Peterson's is today.

The family will read from Peterson's essay at her funeral today, a celebration of her life and her positive influence on others.

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