April 17, 2007
I remember the day so clearly. It was the Fall semester of my senior year at Virginia Tech. I woke up with a jolt as the phone rang too close to my ear. It was my twin sister calling from Northern Arizona where she was a third-year student:
"Don't go to class today" - panic was in her voice.
"Dad just called. He said planes are hitting buildings on the East Coast. Don't go anywhere."
My mind reeled as the weight of her words sunk in. I looked at the clock. Golden sun streamed through my bedroom window. It was around 7:00 AM in the Southwest. What on earth was Liz talking about?
From thousands of miles away, Liz gave me a scrambled account of the events of that beautiful September morning. To ease her alarm, I assured her that although Virginia Tech seemed close to DC and NY in comparison to AZ, we were actually rather far away from the action. The calm in my voice masked the sick feeling forming in my stomach.
After hanging up the phone, my day unfolded like many other Virginia Tech students' days. I wandered into my living room to find my two roommates staring glass-eyed at the television. I didn't even make it to the couch. I just quietly sat down on the floor and watched the horror unfold.
News spread quickly on this high-tech campus. Virginia Tech was one of the first universities in the nation to require all students to own a personal computer. I remember the day I received my very first private e-mail account - vt.edu. I felt so grown up.
On September 11th, 2001 fingers flew over Instant Messenger as students expressed a range of emotions - shock, fear, sickness, sadness. E-mails flew into Inboxes as a quick means of reaching everyone on campus instantaneously. I remember IM-ing my best buddy Mike, stopping him in his tracks before he headed for what he thought would be another routine day of class in the Computer Science department.
The usually vibrant, fun-loving campus froze as the normal events of the day were canceled and the reality of a national tragedy spread to every corner of Blacksburg, VA. I chalked up that day as the worst day of my entire college career.
Now, just a few years later, Virginia Tech students experience horror all over again. Except this time, the terror is close to home. It is home.
Worst School Shooting in U.S. History
April 16th, 2007.
If you caught a glimpse of any form of media yesterday, you probably saw the shaky scenes of green lawns and towering stone buildings caught on a student's cell phone. The Virginia Tech campus, normally populated by students rushing across the sprawling drill field to make it to class on time, looked eerily quiet. As footage progressed, surreal images of bloody, injured students against the rolling green and gray jarred your senses.
As clip after clip flashed across the screen, names familiar to alumni rang out: "West A-J, Montgomery Regional Hospital, Norris Hall, drill field..."
Can this be happening? Virginia Tech has always been so safe...
As I type, major news networks claim up to 32 fatalities and 21 injuries resulted from two separate shooting incidents early Monday morning - one in residence hall West Ambler-Johnston and another in academic building Norris Hall.
Interviews with students reveal experiences one hopes never to personally endure. One injured student, interviewed by MSNBC, shared details of an anonymous shooter walking into the classroom to open fire on what appeared to be no one in particular. In a frightening turn of events, the speaker described students barricading the door to thwart the shooter's attempt to return to the classroom to kill more.
Other students, farther from the mayhem, spent the day locked in classrooms and dorms, confused and waiting apprehensively. My stepsister's boyfriend, a graduate TA, was one of thousands in this situation.
Virginia Tech - known for its fantastic football, its top engineering program, and its laid-back campus atmosphere - has, in a few short hours, joined the infamous ranks of schools like Columbine and Red Lake.
A Sense of Helplessness
Tragedies like this have a way of taking our breath away. What do we do? How can we comfort? How did this happen? Will true healing ever occur?
Even in the days and weeks to come, few answers will offer comfort to the grieving families who sent their once-healthy, promising young adults away only to receive the phone call every parent dreads.
My own thoughts were frozen as I watched coverage that hit so close to home. Not only am I a graduate, but my twin sister, stepsister, and cousin received their degrees there, and a younger cousin recently began his freshman year there. We're a Hokie family if there ever was one.
I embraced my Christian faith while a student at Virginia Tech thanks to a student church called New Life Campus Fellowship. Yet, in times like this when suffering is no longer an intellectual concept, the Christian faith is challenged - can it really hold up in the face of such human tragedy? Or is it just a nice idea for when life is clicking along steadily?
As I tried to process the unreal events in my mind, a friend of mine sent me this Lenten reflection from Pope Benedict:
"The Cross is the definitive revelation of love and divine mercy, also for us, men and women of our time too often distracted by worldly and momentary concerns and interests. God is love and His love is the secret of our happiness. To enter into this mystery of love there is no other way than that of losing ourselves, giving ourselves, the way of the Cross."
What strikes me about Pope Benedict's reflection is his emphasis on the Cross. He does not claim our happiness is merely in the Resurrection but in "the way of the Cross." I can't fully begin to explain the meaning behind these words, yet one thing rings true - our happiness does not rest in this life being perfect but in the love of God, a love that expressed through the depths of suffering.
As Pope Benedict points out, we are often distracted by worldly and momentary concerns. But God is not distracted. He knows tragedy. He knows death. He is not indifferent or removed. He has walked it, experienced it. And He offers us mercy and love the entire way of the Cross.
Unlike Pope Benedict, I don't have poetic words to help others cope with what happened at Virginia Tech. I wish I did. As a writer I wish I had something really profound to say. As an alumnus I wish I had something comforting to say. But although I don't have the perfect words, I can point others to a perfect God - a God who suffers with us and whose own redemptive suffering transforms our suffering so that it is not in vain.
Memories of Virginia Tech in the aftermath of Sept. 11th remain vivid. As the sun sank below the mountains, and Tuesday morning gave way to twilight, off-campus students wandered to the drill field where a campus-wide prayer service was held by clergy of several denominations. The stars glistened over us as we stood on the grassy lawn, surrounded by the gray, neo-Gothic structures that characterize the VT campus. As we prayed, we stood in the glow of the War Memorial chapel - a focal point on the drill field where names of fallen alumni are engraved on large pillars.
Peace descended on the group of students as prayers were sent heavenward. It was the only time that day where hope seemed to reign. In less than 24 hours, students were banding together to proclaim faith in a God bigger than their fears. As the days and weeks unfold, I pray Virginia Tech can band together and reach out to that same God now as we did then.