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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast with Haze
The Daily
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Mama Madison: Mourning pop culture figures
It's a rite of passage

"Did you hear?" my daughter asked, the moment I picked her up from a friend's house last Sunday morning. My mind had been on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, but it seemed unlikely that's what a gaggle of 11-year-old girls had been discussing at a sleepover. "No, what?" I replied. "The guy from Glee died," she informed me. "You know, the one who played Rachel's boyfriend."

Although she wasn't much of a Gleek, my daughter was riveted by the news. And I felt a little wistful that yet another childhood rite of passage was down - -the one where you find out a celebrity has unexpectedly died.

I remember my first. It was 1976 and my friend Debbie, queen of all things morbidly Tiger Beat, told me that the girl who played Buffy on Family Affair, an afterschool syndication favorite, had died of a heroin overdose. Debbie had also told me a couple years earlier that Mikey (of Life Cereal fame) had died from eating pop rocks and drinking a soda.

But the Buffy "rumor" turned out to be true.

I can't say I knew what heroin, or even what an overdose, was-I wouldn't read Go Ask Alice for at least another five years. And I don't think I fully understood that the actress who played bachelor Uncle Bill's younger niece, Anissa Jones, was actually 18, when her death happened, not still six or seven.

But I had loved my Mrs. Beasley doll. And I remember feeling sad.

Celebrities seemed to drop like flies like after that. The next year it was Elvis Presley and Freddie Prinze from Chico and the Man, followed by John Lennon's murder in 1980. I remember where I was when I heard about all of them (back seat of my parents' car coming home from summer camp, front steps of my best friend's house, in between classes in middle school (Debbie had her locker near by).

But famous people, of course, weren't the only ones dying tragically during this period. I'm from just outside Washington, D.C., a city that, at the time of my youth, was in deep decline as middle class families began migrating to the suburbs. Inner city poverty rates were on the rise along with the number of homicides. By the time I graduated college my hometown was well on its way to being named the "Murder Capital of the World."

I do remember seeing the headlines, and hearing news report after news report of tragic deaths and senseless slayings.

But unlike with Anissa, Freddie and John, I don't remember a single name of a victim. And I am sorry for that.

It is weird how the death of a celebrity takes the youth of a nation by storm. I think years from now, my daughter will remember discussing "Finn's" death with her buddies over post-sleepover doughnuts. Intense interest in a dead celebrity is as old as the letters on the Hollywood sign.

But I need to do a better job of making sure my kids also remember the name of an unarmed teenager followed and shot in the chest by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida.

They need to remember Trayvon, and others like him. Because the tragic deaths of regular high school kids--and not just of those who play them on TV -- deserve to be fully remembered, too.

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