Indian Hills 7th grader’s account of Jewish Community Center shooting earns Library of Congress award

Margaret Veglahn as Scout in the production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Margaret Veglahn as Scout in the production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Margaret Veglahn was getting ready for her final performance as Scout in a production of the stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Jewish Community Center in April 2014 when she heard a loud popping sound. She and the rest of the cast were kept indoors as police responded to the shooting that would sink hearts across the country.

Now, Veglahn’s account of the incident in the context of the message of To Kill a Mockingbird has earned her recognition in a prestigious national competition. Veglahn was recently named the Kansas winner in the Library of Congress’s “Letters to Literature” competition. Veglahn, who addressed the letter to Mockingbird author Harper Lee, completed the project as part of a classroom assignment in her advanced English class at Indian Hills. As the Kansas winner, Veglahn will have her letter judged among the 50 state winners in consideration for the national prize.

A copy of Veglahn’s letter is copied below:

Dear Harper Lee,

On April 13, 2014 I was preparing to go on for the final performance of a stage adaptation of your book To Kill a Mockingbird at The Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. As I was getting my costume on, I heard loud noises coming from the parking lot. We all headed toward the door, but we were stopped and told that under any circumstances we were not to leave the building. We waited for what seemed like an eternity as sirens wailed outside. Later that day, the cast was informed the just beyond the wall I was leaning on, two people had been shot and killed. My heart dropped into my stomach.

I looked on the table and saw a copy of your book. I picked it up and flipped to the first page as I had many times before. As my eyes moved from beautiful word to beautiful word, they were opened to what had truly happened just feet away from where I now stood. It was the same thing that happened when Bob Ewell attacked Jem and Scout. It was the same thing that had happened when Tom Robinson had been killed in prison. It was a hate crime. The words sent shivers down my spine like when cold air slips silently through your window on a cold winter night. I found myself unable to stop reading. As I dug deeper and deeper into the story, every word I had skipped over before harnessed a new meaning to me. Especially after what I just experienced.

Most people, including myself, assumed that after the Civil Rights Act was passed hate crimes were no longer an issue. It was while I was knee deep in the trial scene that I understood that hate crimes aren’t always about skin color. They can involve religion, political parties, beliefs, and anything else that makes one person different from another. Scout, much like me, was dumbfounded why people would possibly commit such heinous acts. She went to her father for help. I came to you to guide me through the maze of my thoughts. When Atticus spoke to Scout, I felt as if it was you talking to me. “There are a lot of ugly things in this world Scout. I’m not going to lie to you. But there are good things too, great things. Find that little glimmer of good in all the bad, and you’ll live a happy life.”

I’m trying as hard as I can to find that glimmer in the man who so nonchalantly murdered two innocent human beings. Those were people with family and friends and jobs and lives. There is nothing more precious than a life. He took them away and for that I see no glimmer. No goodness anywhere in that heart of steel. As much as your book has changed my view on the world, that is one thing I have a hard time with. Does everyone really have something good in them?

I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird countless times trying to sift through my feelings. Each time I discover something I hadn’t noticed before. Each time I reach the back cover I stop and talk to the characters in my head. I ask them questions and they talk back. It may seem crazy, but really it’s quite therapeutic. I take stock of what I know and what still makes my head spin. No matter how many times I flip the pages of your story, I realize I will never truly be able to let go of the burden that day has put on my life. However, it has been lightened an incredible amount and my back is no longer breaking.


Margaret Veglahn