Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Tech’

Newtown, CTAgain. It’s happened again. And because of my experience at Virginia Tech, once again I have to find a way to manage what I know about this kind of violence, knowledge I never wanted and knowledge I resent having. What I know is this:

Right now, scores of people are wandering in and around Sandy Hook Elementary School. Some have been called there because they have a job to do. Some have been drawn there because they seek solace in others who are grieving. There are tears — many, many tears — and there are people, some of them strangers, who are grasping one another, hugging because they hope that simple act might somehow stave off the crushing reality they are faced with. And sometimes it does. Others are alone, their faces cloaked in blank expressions because they can find no emotion to capture what his happening in their heads and in their hearts. Makeshift memorials — candles, flowers, photographs — are appearing at the school and the fire station and the town offices.

Parents are there, too, and by now, if they haven’t been reunited with their children, they fear the worst. More than the worst. They are being tended to by counselors and others but the wait is still unbearable. And the identities of the victims — their children likely among them — will not be released for some time because there are so many and the coroner’s offices cannot process them quickly for fear of making a terrible, terrible mistake. And so the survivors must wait.

Many men and women are in uniform or in blue windbreakers with bright yellow letters across the back — FBI, ATF, State Police. They are huddling in groups in corners, grim-faced and focused, whispering into radios and phones. Other uniformed men and women have cordoned off the school — now a crime scene — and are fending off the curious and the concerned and the grief-stricken.

All around the school, the streets are clogged with vehicles — hulking black SUVs, police cruisers, unmarked Ford sedans, and an array of oversized vans emblazoned with network and local station logos, each with a satellite antenna craning up into the darkening sky. Throughout the town, reporters are doing stand-ups under bright camera lights, staking out spots with the most dramatically lit views of the school in the background and parading whoever they can find that is willing to talk in front of the camera — survivors, parents, officials, townspeople … anyone.

A black hole is forming over Newtown right now. At its center is a small elementary school, more than two dozen lost souls, and an act of unspeakable horror. In the days and weeks and months ahead, we — all of us — will be drawn to it, mainly because we will want explanations. Some will seek them because they are paid to sort this sort of thing out. Some will seek them because their job is to investigate and share what they discover with us. Some, and I am regrettably among this number, are seeking what we must know we will never find — some answer that goes beyond how far we have fallen.


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Even from the outset, it was no ordinary day. I remember sitting at a stoplight that morning three years ago, on my way to my office on the campus of Virginia Tech, and thinking that I wasn’t sure I had ever seen snow — mid-April snow, no less — being blown horizontally. It didn’t appear to be falling even, just sweeping across the landscape, scouring the newly green earth. Of course, within just a few short hours, other unlikely events would come to pass, events far more significant than a late spring snow. I did not know that then. I wish I did not know that now.

Three years have passed since that time, and today, many are remembering that same morning in their own ways. Some will remember communally, gathering to listen to music, to learn from speakers, to reflect quietly. Thousands will run 3.2 miles in remembrance of the 32 lives lost. There is solace here, to be sure — the solace that comes from sharing grief with others who have felt it. There will be hugs. There will be candles. And there will be tears. As usual, my friends and colleagues from University Relations here at Virginia Tech will be on hand to record those moments and more.

But many of us — and I count myself among that number — will remember that morning privately. Here are some things I remember.

I remember the way that same wind blew for days without ceasing, a bitter wind that made every moment feel urgent and heightened every emotion. A wind so constant that when it finally stopped, it seemed just as loud in its absence.

I remember the swarms of people — the press, the police, university administrators, students, parents, gawkers — descending on the Inn at Virginia Tech like attendees at some grim carnival. Among that number were the parents, colleagues, and friends of those that were lost — dumbstruck with grief, wandering the corridors, marked by blank and impenetrable stares.

I remember the constant hum of the war room, our makeshift communications center in the midst of the crisis. The televisions blaring with constant coverage. The knots of state police, FBI, and university officials, huddled in corners. The phones clattering endlessly as journalists, alumni, ordinary people from around the world called in seeking answers. Those of us whose job was to provide those answers pounded on our laptops, crafting responses, sharing them with those who were cradling phones between chin and shoulder, trying their best to respond to all the questions that came their way, and I remember the frustration that we all felt as we faced the fact that there was so much — so very very much — that we did not know and could not explain.

I remember slipping into a conference room at the inn, seeking out a senior administrator to prepare her for an interview with Oprah. At the moment I stepped in, the president of the university, the superintendent of the state police, representatives of the FBI, and the county coroner were trying to explain to a room full of devastated loved ones why they could not yet claim — could not yet see — the bodies of those they lost, and I remember how I knew that moment would be burned indelibly into my consciousness, that I would never escape its import.

And I remember joining a crowd of Hokies on the Drillfield a week later, as representatives from the Student Government Association  released a single balloon — one at a time — for each life lost.  32 balloons, each climbing skyward so slowly it seemed reluctant to leave the earth.  Thousands of us watched, struck silent by profound grief.

Close your eyes now. Count to 32. Go slowly. Pause after each number, and imagine a life lost for each number you count. Imagine the vacuum that each of those lives left behind.

There. That’s the size of our loss. That’s the scope of our grief.

I carry these and many more memories with me today and every day. I do not want them. I long for the day when I need no longer carry them so close at hand. But today is not that day. Not for me, and not for many of you who are reading this post. We remember. Not because we want to, but because we must.

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Okay, class — raise your hand if you noticed the unnecessary commas in the headline. Good for you. If you did notice, maybe it’s because you know all about the difference between that and which and how one signals a restrictive clause and the other a non-restrictive clause and how those two things need to be punctuated differently. Or maybe you didn’t know all that. Maybe you just know that it doesn’t look right.

We had just finished up this discussion like this in the advanced media writing class I’m teaching at Virginia Tech when a young woman (apparently with an unusually high tolerance for grammar and usage issues) asked me to explain the difference between who and whom.

“Well,” I began, “you have to understand the difference between subject and object.”

No sooner had I started than I sensed — more than heard — a collective groan. A quick glance around the room confirmed that, unlike the eager questioner, most of my students had already had their fill of language mechanics. Who, whommore like whatever, they seemed to be thinking.

“Can any of you explain this? When do you use who and when do you use whom?”

Not one hand went up. Not one word was spoken. In fact, the silence was so deep that I could make out the conversation of a couple of students walking down the hall outside the classroom. Apparently, someone named Troy was, like,  totally supposed to BE somewhere and he had, you know, like blown it off completely. Dude.

In that silent classroom, it became apparent to me that these students saw the task of writing in a very different way than I do. For them, it was all about prescriptive rules and how well you knew them, and those rules sometimes backed you into a corner, limiting your options. It’s either who or whom, and you have to make a choice, and if you don’t know which one it is, you’re, like, well … totally screwed.

I lowered my voice, so they would listen more closely.

“Can I let you in on a little secret? Something that professional writers do all the time?”

Maybe they didn’t actually lean forward, but it seemed like it.

“If you find yourself in a predicament like this, and you don’t quite know what’s the right way … write around it. Build another sentence that says the same thing in another way, a way that doesn’t put you at risk of making an embarrassing mistake.”

From the back of the room, a few students tittered nervously. Others exchanged glances, trying to gauge which way the please-the-teacher wind was blowing.

“I’m not kidding,” I told them, but I’m not sure they believed me. “You’re writers,” I told them, “or at least you want to be. Learn to use language and mechanics to suit your needs. It’s what writers do.”

It was nearly 5:15, and we wrapped up class by reviewing the AP Stylebook rules for who and whom: Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name. It is grammatically the subject (never the object) of a sentence, clause or phrase …

I hope that some of them learned a lesson that day, but I can’t say for sure. They just zipped up their backpacks, shrugged into their Hokies sweatshirts, and skittered out of the door. It was late, and I’m sure they had to, like, totally be somewhere.

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For some reason, it had never occurred to me that today would be anything more than just another day. I had a couple of extra hours in the morning — campus offices didn’t open until 10 AM — and I had hoped to use that time to catch up on a couple of things around the house. Yet almost immediately, I felt a bit off my game — aggravated and unsettled by the smallest things. My daughter’s breakfast dishes in the sink. The house painters showing up. The dog barking, barking, barking. For some reason, I just felt incredibly frustrated, and inexplicably sad.

Even as I write that, I’m struck by how foolish it seems. Today is, of course, April 16th.

Here’s something you have to understand — most of the time, I do a pretty good job at refusing to think much about that time two years ago when so many lives were lost, and so many, many more were changed. For better or worse, it’s what I’ve learned to do with those troubling memories of the days spent in the trenches with my colleagues  — wrangling the press, trying to stay on top of the constant flow of information, writing and rewriting and re-rewriting talking points, answering the incessantly clattering phones in the “war room.” It just went on and on and on, and all of it was being played out against a backdrop of unspeakable, unimaginable tragedy.

It was, frankly, more than I could process at the time, so I did what many others did. I focused on the job at hand. I did the work. And I let that whole processing thing run its course.

Over the last two years, I’ve put a lot behind me. I no longer feel the need to walk around the semi-circle of engraved HokieStones on the Drillfield whenever I happen to be nearby. I’m able to walk comfortably through the conference center without bristling at the memory of the crush of hundreds of reporters, hungry for the slightest shred of news. And I’m able to talk to those who lost children or spouses without trying to imagine the depth of their profound grief.

In my own way, I guess I’d managed to convince myself that I had it licked. That no matter how that experience may have changed me and no matter how permanent those changes may be, it was all behind me. So when I woke up this morning, I fully imagined it would be just another day.

So wrong. So very very wrong.

All across campus today, people are gathering in remembrance, and while all those events have their origins in tragedy, they are marked on this day with hope — hope for peace, hope for resolution, hope for redemption. But even though I share that hope, I don’t think I’ll be joining in at any of the ceremonies. Remembrance is easy enough for me.

It’s forgetting I have such a hard time with.

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I’ve written a fair amount about words here, and about their power, but last night I was reminded of how much weight language can carry. Two words, the subject line of a text message to my cell phone at 8:17 PM. Two words that simultaneously alerted me to a current tragedy, and dredged up memories of an experience that no amount of words could adequately describe. Two words, as blunt and straightforward as the act which necessitated their use: campus murder.

No reasonable person would assume that, for those of us who lived through and with the tragedy of April 16, 2007, life would ever be the same. Yet, day in and day out, I’ve learned to perpetuate that illusion. I’ve become adept at the graceful sidestep. I taught myself to avoid the slippery slope that remembering those events forces me to traverse. There are, of course, moments when I must remember — when I visit with my friends who lost a daughter, when I have a casual conversation with the woman from my daughter’s Girl Scout troop who lost a husband, when I have a meeting in the alumni conference center, a beautiful facility that was overrun by more than 700 journalists during those days.

At other moments, I reflect more deliberately, walking slowly around the semi-circle of Hokie Stone markers outside the main administrative building on campus, each engraved with the name of one now gone. Or, as I did this morning, browsing through the memorial pages on the university’s web site. But these are moments I seek out, moments that I’ve learned to take in small doses the way one builds up an immunity to a pathogen by deliberate, controlled exposure.

The most troubling thing about last night was the chain reaction those two simple words triggered, a reaction both unwelcome and unbidden. And, of all the vestiges of April 16th, this is perhaps the one that plagues me the most. Those events marked me. They changed my psyche, permanently and indelibly, and changed it in such a way that even these two unrelated and vastly different events are linked. They changed me in such a way that those two words, texted to my cell phone last night, pulled past events forward into the present, and invested present events with a weight and sadness far beyond their measure.

A few moments ago, an emergency vehicle sped through the intersection just outside my office window, sirens blaring, and my attention was drawn from my own here-and-now to what might have happened somewhere else. And in those moments, I began to imagine, again, the worst. It’s a foolish reaction, and one that, thankfully, passes quickly. But it’s one that I’ve come to recognize, one that I would gladly never have again, and one that brings to mind two more words that I hope one day to use with conviction.

Enough. Already.

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