Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Today We Are All Hokies

Two years ago today I was a writer for U.Va.'s student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily. It was spring of my third year and I had just gotten back from a weekend in Fredericksburg, where my car broke down. I had gone up that weekend to see a friend at Mary Washington, and literally minutes after entering the city, I heard a loud thud under my hood and the steering wheel locked up. Thankfully I was able to get it off the road safely and managed to find a way to the dorm where I would sleep on the floor that night, but my car was out of commission and I had no way back to Charlottesville. Rather than allow me to hitchhike, my parents decided to come all the way up to Fredericksburg to take me back to Charlottesville and somehow retrieve my car from the shop. I finally got back to school Sunday night. 

After leaving class on Monday morning, I got a call from my mom. I was expecting my parents to call, because they were supposed to bring my car back to Charlottesville from Fredericksburg and then I would meet them for lunch. When I answered, she said they were on their way. But she also asked if I had heard what was going on at Tech; I couldn't say I had. Apparently there had been some kind of shooting at a dorm--two people had died and the media was calling it a "lover's quarrel." I thought it was strange and certainly tragic, but I had no comprehension of how bad it actually was. Anyway they were almost there, and let's meet at Qdoba on the Corner. On the way, I ran into the paper's editor-in-chief and told him what I had just heard, assuming we'd be writing an above-the-fold story about it that day. He looked surprised and headed off to our offices, and I said I'd meet him there after lunch. Within hours, he and another writer would be headed off to Blacksburg, where they would spend the night in the back of their car, alternately sleeping and e-mailing the office staff updates on what had happened. At lunch, my parents said they had seen several state police cars speeding toward Blacksburg while they were at breakfast near a major highway.

In the time it took to eat our food and for me to head back to the Cavalier Daily office, the extent of what happened had become apparent. Normally the Cav Daily was a bustling, happy and energetic place--you were there to write a story and were expected to uphold journalistic standards, but you were also surrounded by your friends. If your article was about something ridiculous a fraternity house had done, you made jokes about it. There was always laughter in the basement, as we called it. But when I walked in, there was no laughter. People walked around with blank stares on their faces and just looked stunned. The television was on and I could see WDBJ7 news anchors speaking on CNN above a Breaking News heading. I asked my news editor what had happened--the last I heard, it was a lover's quarrel and they were chasing down the guy that did it. Her response was simply, "22 dead." Surreal doesn't even begin to describe how it felt, especially when the numbers started climbing even higher.

Everyone was on Facebook looking for their friends, frantically dialing cell phones to see if everyone was okay. I remember looking at my "Friends at VT" screen and thinking in despair that there was no way they all could have gotten out unharmed. Thankfully I was wrong; after several hours of phone calls, Facebook and instant messenger I found out that all my friends were okay, though several of them were in Norris Hall when the shooting started. Several lost friends. The rest of the day is mostly a blur, though I distinctly remember seeing two of my friends from high school on national TV talking about their friend being listed as "missing." 

My job for the rest of the day and the rest of the week was basically to keep up to date on press conferences and keep writing stories about the shooting. Several of our writers went home to be with friends--my news editor got word that night that her friend's sister Reema was one of the victims, and she decided to spend the rest of the week at home. In all truth, I probably should have done the same. That was one of those days when all you really want to do is go home and hug your friends.

Two nights after the shooting, the U.Va. community gathered in the outdoor amphitheater on Grounds for a candlelight vigil. In all my time there, I've never seen that amphitheater that full for anything. The big "Z" painting on one of the steps had been painted orange and maroon, and everyone was either wearing a "'Hoos for Hokies" t-shirt or a VT-colored ribbon. Beta Bridge had been painted blue, orange and maroon with the "Hoos for Hokies" phrase. At the end of the vigil, everyone signed these giant banners to be sent to Tech. I reconnected with people I hadn't spoken to in years and patched up relationships that had gotten sour. Everything that divided people became absolutely trivial after April 16. At least something good came out of it--people often ask how God could allow these things to happen. I don't think it's a matter of whether or not He allows them, but that He can bring something good out of even the worst tragedy. I don't know much about theology, but that's my two cents.

As time went by, it faded into the past and became part of the new normal. But it still intrudes on our everyday life--one night the following semester, we were on our way to a party and one of my newspaper friends asked our editor how her friend's family was doing. They were doing okay...getting by. In Southside and Southwest Virginia, it didn't take long to just become "what happened" or "when that happened." Rarely does the word "shooting" enter the lexicon. And on the one-year anniversary, the U.Va. chapel rang 32 dissonant chimes at noon. I looked around and didn't see anyone moving in any direction; everyone was just frozen, looking at the ground and listening to the bell, not saying a word.

I guess the whole purpose of this post was to remember how what happened ended up profoundly affecting people miles away. I hope I achieved that, and I hope you found this to be worth reading. There's a reason I didn't name the person who caused all this turmoil; contrary to what the national media seems to believe, I think it's better to focus on the lives of the victims and the outpouring of support from all over the country. Even from Hooville.

If you want to comment, feel free to do so, but please keep the following in mind: The thing that infuriated me more than almost anything in the following days was how many people on both sides of the gun debate used Virginia Tech to advance their own agenda. I wish I could remember the name of the congresswoman and the paid spin doctor who declared that this was proof their side of the issue was right. No one wanted to hear their bloviations. These were people my age; they were friends of friends who would never be coming home, not from some faraway battlefield but from college, and they hadn't even held a single funeral yet. No one knew exactly how this had happened, but already political entrepreneurs took it upon themselves to read their pet worldview into a situation about which they knew nothing. Both sides did it and both sides made asses out of themselves. Debating gun policy could have waited a while longer. For that reason, please leave the gun debate out of any comments. There's a time and a place for that, and I'd be happy to have a discussion about it at a later date, but please keep any responses to this article strictly about the victims or your reactions to what happened that day.

Thank you for reading. 



Anonymous said...

I remember the day much like I remember 9-11: exactly where I was when I heard, the sinking feeling as the news continued to get come in.

I graduated VT almost 20 years ago, but I felt the pain just the same as if I were there yesterday. VT was one of the greatest experiences of my life: formative years in the seeming safety of a close-knit, family atmosphere. That image is shattered by one madman on a Spring day.

As bad as it was, the one truly amazing thing for me and my fellow Hokies was the incredible outreach and support from around the nation. The candlelight vigils, the banners signed and sent, the well wishes.... These all helped tremendously. It was a very difficult thing to get past, but I still get emotional thinking of all the support and God's honest empathy that poured in from across the nation.

It's too bad that it takes a tragedy to make us all realize what's truly important. From Hokie Nation to our friends at UVa, thank you for your kind words and thoughts. Let's hope that nothing this terrible happens again.


Dave Perks said...

Two years ago, I lived in Baltimore and, like you, watched these events unfold online and on TV. Now, I'm fortunate enough to live in Blacksburg, home of my alma mater. I love it here and I'm reminded daily of just how resilient this town and my school are. But it's important to know that this recovery from that day could not have happened in the way that it has without the support and kind words and outright displays of love we all received from across the nation. Starting in Hooville. I know that we've all gone back to our tongue-in-cheek name calling and all around heckling of each other. But I still get choked up every time I happen upon a picture of the bridge painted up with the Hoos for Hokies message.

Like the previous commenter said, I hope we never have an opportunity to repay the support that was shown to us. But if we do, myself and many of my friends will be as close to the first in line as possible that day.

Go Hokies. And Go Hoos.