The morning of the Virginia Tech school shootings I was putting the finishing touches on a light-hearted story for our local newspaper. It was about a friend who performs weddings for couples in Scottish kilts, on horseback, in campgrounds, in barns, or in front of the health food store where she works.
As the Tech story broke, I put the wedding piece aside and wouldn’t pick it up again for a couple of weeks. In light of what was playing out in Blacksburg, it seemed irrelevant.
For twenty-one years I have lived forty minutes from Virginia Tech and for many years worked in a downtown Blacksburg bead shop within view of the campus. When my sons were young and they came to work with me, they roamed the streets of Blacksburg and felt safe, buying baseball cards at the game store, playing video games at the corner deli, skateboarding up and down Draper and College Avenue.
But the small town feeling I remember had been shattered. Shaken, I called my friend Alwyn, whose Blacksburg home I often stayed at when I had to work back-to-back days. She, a writer and environmental activist, told me about the retirement center where she now lives being locked down that morning. Later, when officials sent word that the doors were open and it was safe to go outside, she wondered how to carry on? Where to go? What to do? It
We both wrote. I posted a love letter to Blacksburg on my weblog the day after the violence, which became the first in a series of entries about the shootings. I wrote about how strange it was to watch the televised memorial convocation and recognize familiar faces in the audience. I wrote about auditing Nikki Giovanni’s creative writing class years earlier, sitting in her office, receiving a handwritten note from her (only because I wrote her one first), and how moved I was by her poetic words that helped bring the Virginia Tech community together. was hard to see the place I knew so well under a media microscope. The intense attention on Blacksburg felt supportive and invasive at the same time. As the week progressed, I expressed my concern about the slick news packaging of the “Virginia Tech Massacre,” complete with emotionally charged images and a background soundtrack that sounded like a TV movie in the making. I was worried that school shootings were becoming so frequent that a conditioned media response was formulating.
Alwyn kept a journal. As the wind howled, the sun shone, and the azaleas bloomed around her, she expressed her horror and grief on paper. She, a Quaker, wrote about her efforts to feel compassion for the shooter, Seun-Hui Cho. It was easier to do when she related to him as the “young shy uncomfortable face” that the media first repeatedly showed. After seeing the images of him laden with weapons and after hearing his hateful words, she wrote, “I tried to contemplate the unexplainable distortion of what I had first seen to be a human being and now was trying to avoid seeing him, as perhaps how he wanted to be seen, as evil.”
For days we were both torn between our need for contemplative solitude and the need to know every new detail as it emerged. We watched TV, listened to the radio, read the newspaper, got news online, and talked on the phone to each other. From the first day, I wanted to go to Blacksburg and see the faces of the people I felt solidarity with. I wanted to walk familiar streets to convince myself that they were still there. But another part of me wanted to avoid facing the added sorrow that would create. My husband, Joe, a counselor, was called to work with some of those most directly affected by the shootings, and so the aftereffects of the violence loomed large in our home.
It was an unusually hot afternoon in May, three weeks after the shooting, when I finally made my way to Blacksburg. Alwyn and I had lunch at the India Garden before heading over to the Tech drill field. Joe had described the makeshift memorial that had spontaneously spread out on the field. Thirty-two large stones representing those who had been killed were placed in a circle in the grass. The thirty-third stone, the one for Seun-Hui Cho, had disappeared and then re-appeared a couple of times, Joe told me. It was a visual reminder of the struggle people were enduring as they tried to cope with what had happened.
The stones were covered with flowers, candles, stuffed animals, and cards. Moving from one to another reminded me walking the “stations of the cross,” a Catholic prayer pilgrimage, usually done near Easter, which involves viewing fourteen images of Christ’s final hours. I was shocked to see how many stones there were. How many were dead. Pausing at each stone, I quietly spoke the name placed before it. By this time the victims had become sadly familiar to me. I had faces to go with most of the names.
Alwyn had experienced the memorial a week before. I left her sitting in the shade under a large oak tree as I walked to a large blue-and-white striped tent in the middle of the field where the memorial continued. A sense of intimacy hovered inside the tent, where wall-to-wall message boards that mourners were writing on leaned against tables. Although the tables covered with keepsakes, conveying the once vibrant lives of those who had been killed, were hard to look at, I also felt privileged to be a witness to them. The air was stifling. People were sniffling and wiping there eyes.
Two items in particular broke my heart. One was a single leather baby shoe sitting in the grass apart from the other memorabilia. I picked it up and studied it. The leather was worn. The soles were dusty and etched by time. I thought about the toddling boy who had once worn the shoe, him learning to walk, playing, and then running. I knew the shoe belonged to somebody’s son, not unlike one of my own, and that somebody’s son was gone.
The other item was a colored photograph of one of the young women who had been killed. She was wearing jeans and was stretched out on a sofa engaged in a romantic kiss with a young man her age. Her passion was snuffed out, I thought. She wouldn’t make love to anyone now. Her womb wouldn’t carry any babies. My heart sank.
I choked up telling Alwyn what I had seen at the tent. She was upset about something else. While at the memorial the previous week, she had witnessed what she referred to as “the miracle I had not even dared to hope for.” It was Cho’s stone covered with flowers and a poem that ended with the words, “We miss you.” But now the poem was gone and an angry one was in its place.
I tried to console her by reminding her that anger was a normal response to what happened and that forgiveness takes time. “People are at different stages of healing,” I argued. But she couldn’t bear anymore hate. Together, we walked arm-in-arm back to the car, our heads bowed down.
Photos: 1. Virginia Tech Memorial. 2. My Quaker friend Alwyn resting under a tree with a maroon ribbon around it. 3. The thirty-three memorial stones. 4. Under the tent on the drill field. 5. The shoe.