There are times I think I am being selfish when I discuss what happened on April 16, 2007. I knew none of the victims. Any pain I feel is nowhere near the pain the families must feel on this day. But I do feel pain. And every year that pain neither lessens nor becomes easier to deal with.
I take time in each of my classes on or around April 16 to talk to my students about the events of that day, both as they happened on campus and as I experienced them here in San Antonio. It is my annual version of catharsis. I don’t script what I’ll say in any class, the order always seems to be a little different and some of the content has changed over the years. But what follows are my recollections of that tragic day in Blacksburg.
The first thing I tell my kids, in order for them to have some sort of understanding why I even bring this up, is how I view Virginia Tech and Blacksburg. I was born in Ohio, lived in Florida for several years and went to high school in a small town in Virginia. But Blacksburg is my home. When I go to visit my mom in Buffalo, or visit my dad near Charlotte, I am visiting their houses. I have lived in San Antonio for over 10 years, and have finally convinced myself that I may well live here for the rest of my life, but Blacksburg is my home. When I go back – which has been far too seldom these last few years – and I am driving up I-81 (or down I-81, depending on travel arrangements) and passing through Salem or Ironto or Wytheville or Dublin, I start getting a feeling that I really can’t describe other than equating it to the feeling you get when you’re getting close to the one place where you just belong. Virginia Tech. Blacksburg. Home.
On April16, 2007, I had just been living in San Antonio since the previous September, having gotten a job as Head Professional at The Republic Golf Club. I was working in the pro shop that Monday morning when I saw a couple posts on social media and got a few text messages about some kind of minor incident – possibly involving an accidental shooting – on the VT campus. I remember a couple of us making a joke about it, which still horrifies and embarrasses me to admit. But then the story started changing. Now someone had been killed. Then the story started being picked up by the national news media. Campus was locked down, police and first responders were on site. Now two people, then three. Five. Ten.
That’s when I shut down. I was still working – if it could be called that – in the shop, but my boss, knowing I was an alumnus, told me to go home and do what I needed to do. So I did, but I drove home in silence. I felt like my whole body had been given a massive dose of Novocain. I don’t even think I knew the final number until well into the evening or possibly even the next morning. I remember just sitting on my couch in my apartment – no TV on, just a few text messages and calls from friends and family.
I was numb because I felt violated. Before I shut everything off, the word ‘massacre’ was being used in the same sentence as Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. That should not have been a thing. The coverage of the events were perverting what I knew that place to be to the millions of people watching that were not in some way associated with Virginia Tech. Home is not a place where you see police running down the sidewalk carrying assault rifles. The Virginia Tech campus (or any other campus, for that matter) is not a place where you should see a young man leaning against a glass doorway with confusion and fear etched in his face. But it happened. And we prevailed.
But for the rest of that day, I was simply numb. I had no emotional reaction or release. Just numbness. That changed the next morning.
When my boss sent me home, he told me to only come back when I was ready. I went to work as normal the next morning, April 17. Mainly because I didn’t know what else to do. I was still numb but what was I going to do, sit on my couch all day again? Might as well try to do something. But, that morning the Convocation was going to be televised. It was a slow day in the pro shop, so I had one of my assistants watch over things while I went to the snack bar and sat in front of one of the TVs as they were getting ready. The talking head finished his thoughts, screen fades to the inside of Cassell Coliseum. At the bottom right corner of the screen was a black ribbon with the VT logo in the middle of it. That’s all it took. The numbness went away and all the emotions that I should have felt over the previous 24 hours came washing over me in waves – anger, confusion, unimaginable sorrow. I don’t have much recollection of most of the Convocation, at least partially because for a lot of it my head was in my hands. But, boy, do I remember the last speaker – as I am sure every member of the Virginia Tech family does.
Nikki Giovanni was called upon to close the Convocation. The first line proclaimed, for all the world to hear, “We are Virginia Tech!”
And then, the end of her remarks:
“We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness.
We are the Hokies.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We are Virginia Tech.”
And that’s when it happened, after a few seconds of applause. For the general public watching the Convocation, it may have seemed very strange, possibly bordering on disrespectful. A chant of “Let’s Go Hokies!” spontaneously broke out in the Coliseum – what is most often heard at football games. And that’s when I knew it would be ok – not today, not tomorrow, maybe not for a long time, but it would be ok. We would prevail. We. While I always had a deep connection to Virginia Tech since my first days in August 1988, in that moment, it was almost something tangible. I remember sitting in the snack bar watching and listening to that chant with tears flowing down my face, laughing and crying at the same time. Sad yet hopeful. Angry yet committed. Broken, but not beaten.
In the following days, I learned about those who lost their lives. Each year, when I talk to my classes, I talk about Jarrett Lane, who went to the same very small high school I went to in Narrows, Virginia. He would have graduated the following month with a degree in Civil Engineering. I also talk about Liviu Librescu, who after surviving the Holocaust came to Virginia Tech in 1985. He was still teaching at 76 and was in class in Norris Hall on the morning of April 16. He blocked the door to the classroom, allowing each of his students to escape out the window to safety. This came as a surprise to exactly no one, especially his wife. I remember seeing an interview with her – while her sadness was palpable, so was the pride and joy that she felt that each of his students’ families would not have to suffer a similar loss.
I generally close the remarks by encouraging my students to talk to each other and be vigilant for any family members, peers, whatever who may be in pain. It is my firm belief that every one of these events are preventable. I will not enter into any sort of political debate here, but it is important that we all do what we can to remove any stigma attached to seeking emotional support, and advocate for those who may not have anyone else.
We are still prevailing.
We are still honoring the memory of the 32.
We are Virginia Tech.
**credit for the featured image to Ivan Morozov