Tristan Bixby remembers the day vividly.
At the start, the morning was as mundane as any other she woke up to go to middle school. But it didn’t stay that way. When she thinks back, the clouds are the first thing she remembers.
“I remember the clouds looking so odd. Forgive my nerdiness—they were cumulus stratus clouds and they had a greenish, bluish tint to them,” Bixby said. “It was weather where you were like, ‘It’s Illinois, anything could happen. Tornado? Maybe.’ But I got on the bus and went to school and it was like a regular day.”
Until it wasn’t.
Bixby, now a freshman at Illinois State, had already been introduced to community service. She started raking leaves for the elderly when she was in elementary school, tagging along with her older brothers, Trevor and Tyler, so she could rub shoulders with the older kids. And every summer her parents would task the Bixby siblings—including younger brother Trace—with staying busy by finding a way to help someone else.
“I grew up with this foundation that your life is yours but it’s not supposed to be all about you,” Bixby said.
But what happened on Friday, September 7, 2012, lit a fire in her that took Bixby’s desire to give back to the community to a new level. Her efforts since are what has made her one of the inaugural winners of the McLean County Full Tuition Scholarship at Illinois State University.
‘Something doesn’t feel right’
Bixby also remembers hearing the news. The first whispers were vague, but ominous—something happened at Normal Community High School.
“I turned to my friend and said, ‘Something doesn’t feel right.’ I just had this gut feeling something felt wrong,” Bixby says. “Of course, me being the dramatic person I am, she was like, ‘Whatever Tristan, stop being annoying.’”
Bixby’s gut was right. It would be hours before she knew any more, as she finished her day at the junior high like usual before arriving home to find her mom outside—a not-so-usual time for a teacher to be home already.
That’s when she got the news. There had been an active shooter at the high school, and Trevor Bixby had been held under duress in a classroom.
“It didn’t feel real. It felt like I needed proof that it happened,” Bixby said. “I remember starting to shake and my mom was like, ‘It’s OK. He’s inside. He’s safe. Everyone’s safe.’
“I ran in to find Trevor and he just looked at me and he was fine—he was there, he was alive, he was safe. I said, ‘Are you OK? How are you?’ He just said, ‘I’m OK,’ and that was kind of it for that day and we tried to go about our lives as normal. But as time went on it was very, very difficult for my family to come to terms with that.”
While no one was physically injured in the incident, it rocked many involved, including the Bixby family, and left plenty of emotional scars. In the time since, Bixby has navigated hers by trying to make a change.
Grappling with emotions
Bixby’s first emotion was anger. Anger that something like this could happen. Anger that her brother had to go through it. His life remains affected to this day. Loud noises, even innocuous ones, can send him reeling.
“Things like Fourth of July have never been the same,” Bixby said. “I remember one time bringing a balloon into the car because who doesn’t like balloons? Trevor doesn’t like balloons because of the noise they make when they pop. Every time there’s a loud noise I kind of see him jump and search the room, and it just breaks my heart.”
The anger and frustration only intensified when Bixby, in sixth grade at the time, tried to find her voice and address the issues. But school papers on things like stricter gun laws were met with apprehension, and Bixby was encouraged to give herself some time before addressing her emotions. Perhaps, the thinking went, sixth graders should focus on less challenging or controversial topics—something more kid-friendly.
“I just didn’t really feel like I had a place to talk, especially being so young,” Bixby says, “and then there was a little bit of guilt where I was like, ‘I want to do something about this, but I wasn’t the one who had that experience.’ It took me a little bit to realize I was part of that experience though, and it happened to somebody I love; so therefore, in a way, it’s my experience too.”
Bixby continued to grapple with her emotions for years. It wasn’t until the Parkland high school shooting in 2018 that Bixby was able to outwardly act on her feelings. When she caught wind of people at NCHS organizing a March for Our Lives event, she found her outlet.
With the help of NCHS teacher Patrick Lawler, Bixby got a last-minute spot on the event’s agenda. Rushing across the high school campus and drenched from swim class, Bixby read her prepared speech off her phone. A broken megaphone left the self-proclaimed “theater kid” to lean on her drama skills, and as a shaking, wet, cold, and nervous Bixby projected her speech with nothing but her voice and her passion, she finally shared a message years in the making.
Making a difference
March for Our Lives turned out to be just the beginning for Bixby. As students planned for the event and a corresponding school walkout, a group of particularly engaged students coalesced through their Instagram group chats. Eventually, the discussion changed from, “What do we need to do for this event?” to, “What if we start something of our own?”
The group held its first meeting with just a handful of individuals (Illinois State freshman Allie Beam was also in the room that day). From that gathering, BN Youth Activists (BNYA) was born.
Made up of high school and middle school students in the Bloomington-Normal area, the group tackles community issues from a youth perspective, giving a voice to a population who might be written off as uninformed kids without well-formed opinions. BN Youth Activists works against that perception while trying to make a difference in the community.
While gun control is a major talking point for the group, it is not the only one, and BNYA is designed to be a bipartisan organization. It has participated in March for Our Lives each of the last two years, as well as other events, including a public town hall forum the organization held with local political candidates in October of 2018.
Being a part of the founding of BN Youth Activists and helping spread its message has been a fulfilling experience for Bixby. She has learned confidence and gained communication and leadership skills through her involvement.
“I was able to grow from the experience and say, ‘Yes, I am capable of having these discussions,’” Bixby said. “I know as individuals we’ll all learn from being youth activists and we’ll take what we know and put it toward the good of the world.”
Now that she’s graduated high school and begun life as a Redbird, Bixby looks forward to seeing where the next group of youth activists takes things.
“I don’t want to be like a den mother and like, ‘Hi kids, how are you?’ But I do think I’ll stop in and check in every once in a while, just to make sure everything is going OK,” Bixby said. “Although I may not be a member of the group anymore, I will do everything I can to help them make sure they have that voice and it is heard.”
The next chapter
Bixby plans to continue to make her voice heard as she gets involved on campus. Inside the classroom, she’ll do that as an acting major, embracing the passion she found for theatre in middle school and her natural flair for drama.
She was drawn to Illinois State because she felt at home—even her theatre audition stood out in that way.
“It didn’t feel like any other college auditions I had to do,” Bixby said. “For those, my palms were sweaty, I was nervous—it wasn’t a pleasant experience overall. Then I came here to Illinois State and they were just like, ‘Hi, shut the door, here’s a chair.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, I can do this.’ And when I finished my audition they worked with me a little bit, and it felt like home. It felt like it fit. I left the room feeling comfortable; I left the room feeling confident. It was a really good experience.”
As for her future at Illinois State, the freshman has learned that the world laughs at the best-laid plans, so she’s keeping hers flexible. She plans on making new connections with a diverse group of people. One goal with no wiggle room? Taking full advantage of the waffle makers at Watterson Dining Commons.
“I can see myself and some friends having a study pow-wow over there with waffle, ice cream, waffle,” Bixby said, miming the stacking of food. “I’m so excited about it.”
As for that day in September 2012 that drastically altered her view of the world, it and the things that have spawned from it are mostly unspoken between her and her brother. But she has no plans to soften her activism goals.
“I’m not entirely sure why, but we don’t really talk about it that much,” Bixby said. “I know that I have had a few peers and family members kind of concerned for me, just because of how I have been speaking out and I’ve been standing up for what I believe. It is what I believe and they don’t ask me to back down from that, but they’re like, ‘Maybe take a step back for a little bit,’ and I’m like, ‘How can I stop now?’”
Learn more about the McLean County Full Tuition Scholarship, awarded to new freshmen from McLean County for demonstrating leadership, service, and commitment to our community.