August 27th, 2015
I woke up today to news of a shooting in Virginia, and it brought back sharp memories of April 2007. I wrote this piece the week of the Virginia Tech massacre, in which thirty-two students were killed by another student. Once again an angry person has taken advantage of the lax gun laws in Virginia to kill innocent people, this time on live television. This article was originally published in The Bulletin online (now defunct).
It woke me up this morning, the news. I’ve been thinking for a while that I should tune my radio alarm clock to something more peaceful, like classical music. Something to soothe me out of the dark crevices of sleep. But I can’t quite let go of the desire to know what has gone on in the world while I slept. The announcer had that calm-yet-shocked tone they save for tragedy. Biggest school massacre in the history of the United States, she said. Thirty-two dead. More after the weather.
Something told me to hold on, not to drift back to sleep like I normally do. Though my home country is so distant now, though I don’t know any schoolchildren, though I didn’t want a faraway tragedy to cloud my otherwise promising day. The announcer’s voice returned, and then the words came all at once, only three standing out in my mind. Virginia Tech: my alma mater. Blacksburg: the small town in Southwest Virginia where I spent five years of my young adulthood. A town of sprawling lawns, distant mountain ridges, smoky bars and cow paddocks. A college of fraternities and sororities, renowned for its engineering studies and agriculture programs. A college of 26,000 students in a town with a population of less than 40,000 – so it seemed at times like the college was the town – families and old folks as rare as hen’s teeth. A place where you could drive to the Wal-Mart in neighbouring Christiansburg and pick up a gun, just ten or so aisles away from the Pop Tarts and cereal boxes. Where the campus was so sprawling and large it seemed like a town itself sometimes, and your sense of reality could slowly dissolve, shrinking your world to a place of classes, keg parties, exams and who-slept-with-who.
Thirty-two dead. Shots fired in West Ambler Johnston and Norris Hall. The killer presumed dead.
“My god,” I said, and my husband, still half asleep, curled into me. Sensed the tragedy and held me tightly, his hands on my stomach where the limbs of my unborn child pressed against the skin. I could picture the buildings in my mind. The yellow-gold and grey stone, the musty hallways. Heaters still going to counter a late spring cold snap.
My best friend’s little brother – a student at Virginia Tech. I shot out of bed, fumbled for my glasses and down to the computer. My inbox was already flooded. College friends sharing the news, people we knew who were safe. But she hadn’t written. I called, and she picked up, her voice clear despite the distance. Her Monday afternoon to my Tuesday morning. Her brother was okay, she reassured me. He was in class in a building across from Norris Hall. A student complained they couldn’t hear the teacher, there was too much commotion outside. When they looked out the window they saw a SWAT team. He was still in the classroom when he called her, they been in “lock-down”, not allowed to leave. My friend had slept in and her brother’s call woke her. In some ways, she was lucky, I thought. Saved from the not-knowing: the unanswered phone, the desperate scramble for information.
We talked about other things – babies and old friends, marriages and parents – but my mind kept returning. To nights lying on grass crackling with frost beside the tennis courts, passing a bottle of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine beneath a sky drunk with stars. Skipping class to play Frisbee on the lawn. Walking around the duck pond in the eerie silence of winter’s first snow.
Would any of it ever be the same? Would my child be able to grow up without fearing a classroom, without knowing the sound a gunshot makes at close range? How do I explain to people here, so far away, that it wasn’t like that. It’s not what you think.
Perhaps it’s not what I think, and idyllic memories cloud the reality. According to news reports two people were shot earlier that morning in the dorm, West Ambler Johnston, yet drastic security measures hadn’t been taken. Two people shot in a what was termed a “domestic” wasn’t enough. A gunman on the campus wasn’t enough. Only a full-scale tragedy – “bigger than Columbine” – could garner this much attention. Have guns become so everyday? Is violence only noteworthy when it’s a massacre? And how long does it take for even massacres to barely make the news. We only need to look at Iraq for examples.
But still, I can’t let go of the beauty that I recall behind every image of horror – the girl being carried from Norris Hall has the yellow-gold and grey stone behind her. Backgrounded in a photo of SWAT team members, a tree shows its first buds of spring. An email from a college friend this afternoon summed it up perfectly. She sent me a poem, one that was printed on the back page of the New Yorker the week after September 11, 2001. One line of this poem, by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanaugh) has been reverberating in my head all afternoon: “Try to praise the mutilated world”. There isn’t much else I can do.