Decennium

For weeks I had thought that by a decade later that I would be ready to unpack memories and share my experiences of the massacre that unfolded on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. As this day drew nearer, that old familiar pressure band built in my mind. I always imagine it being like how dogs feel when a tropical depression blows in off of the Gulf, that dread sensation that leaves them pacing warily around the house as their humans go about the routine of piling flats of bottled water and filling all of their coolers with ice. I discovered ten years is probably still too soon for a deeper exposition, and concede now that it may always be so.

All I can offer are a few episodic memories, bits and pieces scissored from a time where I thought I might be losing my mind.  But somehow I feel like I owe it to the ones we lost to remember them now. With that, a little of the easier stuff to recall:

Jamie Bishop was my friend. A fellow Georgia Bulldog and an all around cool guy. His office was directly below mine on the third floor and we’d say “hello” and often chat every morning when I went up the stairs in “Major Bill.” Just that spring he’d helped me record my first podcast. Jamie taught German adjunct for the university but was an artist also – his wife was a regular member of the languages faculty. I like to think we’d still be friends today. I’d see him every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings on the sidewalk – his classroom was near mine – he, coming from class, me on the way to mine. The Monday morning of the shooting my students were in their dorm rooms listening to the podcast that I’d recorded the day before. Because I wanted to try it out, I cancelled class. Jamie was teaching, as normal. And by my count, towards the end of his class period, he became the first person to die in the rampage, shot point blank in the head as the killer burst into his classroom.  Don’t bother looking for answer to the question “why him and not me?” There isn’t one.

I kept getting calls from family and friends all day, checking in on me. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would be worried. Buttoned up inside with my computer, I was on instant messenger trying to reassure my students. In fact, I’d been on instant messenger when a student alerted me that something was happening. The historian in me now wishes that I had saved those conversations. I’m equally glad that I did not.

Matthew LaPorte was in the Corps of Cadets. He wasn’t one that I knew, but I felt his loss keenly. Many of the cadre found an intellectual home in the history department, and I taught many of them. Several became such good friends that I came to think of them like my own sons. We are of a cloth. Matthew LaPorte, unarmed, attacked the killer with all he had, courageous and true to the end. I wasn’t surprised in the least to learn this. If you know someone who thinks the current or even future generation lacks the spine of their forbearers, be advised to discount that person’s opinions.

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The Corps of Cadets assemble in formation to march to the funeral of Matthew LaPorte. April, 2007.

During that week… a day, two days later? I wrote an editorial that a regional newspaper declined to print because I refused to back down on my antagonism toward the media, disdain that was every bit earned. If you are ever involuntarily invited to a shitshow like this, know that every freak from the Westboro Baptist Church and beyond will turn up. But the kids handled themselves well, and so here is what I wrote about them:

They Reminded Us of Who We Are.

My anger over this tragedy peaked Wednesday night when I discovered that NBC had made the noodle-brained decision to air and then distribute the self-pitying diatribe of our campus’s mass murderer. I was not alone in my displeasure. Many Virginia Tech students felt a sense of outrage, not only at the bizarre justifications spewed in the killer’s venomous message, but also that this was what millions of viewers might associate with our university. Indeed, many whom I have talked with in the last twenty-four hours are ready for the media to go home. “It is hard to pay your respects at the memorial,” one student observed, “when you’re being hounded.” Despite such intrusions, what has emerged from all of this is a sense of our students’ sense of common decency. This was just the latest reminder of many truths about this university that last Monday’s tragedy has brought into focus.

Taking an inventory of both what the killer stole from us and the community he has left behind has only served to illustrate the special place that is Virginia Tech. Spend any time reading the biographies of those who died, and a clear picture emerges of the passion and excellence that they brought to the world in which they lived. Looking at how our university has pulled together in the wake of such tragedy, particularly its students, and one quickly sees that the qualities that we admire in those we have lost are present everywhere in those who remain.

Perhaps the first thing that hit many of us was what a remarkable cross section of Virginia Tech the victims represented. Among them were senior members of our faculty, renowned in their fields of study and grooming a new generation of scholars. They died beside their graduate students, who themselves sought out the rigors of an advanced academic program so they might achieve great things in life. Others were junior faculty just beginning their teaching careers after many years of study. They were actively engaging the minds of their students, some of them just completing their first year of college, when the gunman foreclosed on all their dreams. Norris Hall may have been home to engineering offices, but as a classroom building it hosted an array of activities ranging from liberal arts to technical fields. The students lost that day reflected this fact. They were our future scientists and diplomats, poets and artists, historians and engineers.

They came to us from equally diverse backgrounds. Their ethnic roots left few corners of the globe untouched. They volunteered at camps for kids, drew, painted, played music, and danced. Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and companions, they worked hard and understood the nature of life and how to live it.

In short, had Virginia Tech decided to create a brochure or website designed to promote itself to the outside world, it could not have arrived at a more representative mix of individuals, even had it spent months hand-picking an assortment of shining and rising stars. But university officials would not have had to resort to anything so contrived. Those stars were there that tragic day, assembled randomly in a series of classrooms and a residence hall.

Inspiration also comes from those who are left behind. I have spoken with many of my students over the course of the last few days. It has been difficult for everyone, a rude jolt in a season that normally carries so much hopeful anticipation. Yet one theme emerges in many of these conversations – a sense of purpose, of decency, of compassion. Sure, there is anger, real anger. But the feeling of concern here for each other is far greater. I have no doubt these promising young people, touched by tragedy, will grow from this experience. Overcoming such adversity may even help them successfully carry their dreams into what can sometimes be an unforgiving world.

It is sad that even as I write this, countless media outlets will continue to repeat the pointless ramblings of the killer. Instead, we must remember the lives of those who were lost. Moreover, in honoring the dead, we should also remember that an entire constellation of stars remain on campus. Those 32 we have lost, and those many thousands who remain, represent the real Virginia Tech. As the university’s slogan suggests, we gather here to “invent the future.”

Justin Nystrom teaches United States and Southern History at Virginia Tech.

It is seldom that I am as satisfied with something that I wrote six months earlier let alone a decade, but I stand beside every statement that I made then.

Sometime during that week I drove to Frederick, Maryland. My ex-fiancee, worried about me, invited me to spend a couple days with her at a conference she was attending. The drive between Blacksburg and Frederick takes the motorist through some of the most beautiful parts of the Shenandoah Valley, radiant as it was with springtime blossoms. From the Department of Transportation electronic billboards to every church marquee to the numerous hand lettered posters and signs, I saw an outpouring of love and support for the Virginia Tech community the likes of which I may never see again. It was perhaps a simple gesture, but if anyone who put out a sign like that should read this, you should know that it meant an awful lot to me then and still does now. This country seems ready to tear itself apart today, but I want to believe that there remains a majority out there made up of people of good will.

Nor will I soon forget the sunny warm morning that President George W. Bush came to campus. Thinking that it would clear my head, I decided to walk nearly a mile from my regular parking lot to Lane Stadium where he was scheduled to address the community some few days after the shooting. One could see the motorcade approaching from a surprisingly great distance. It was all so surreal, like something out of a waking dream. Unable to deal with the crowd, I turned and walked back to the student union almost alone and watched it on a television with a few parents who had come to pick up their children. Whatever you feel about politicians or appearances like this, all I can offer was that it was unbelievably moving.

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Students wait in line at Lane Stadium to hear President Bush. Not long after taking this picture I turned around and headed back to the student center.

Most of all I think about those colleagues and students who forever remain frozen in time. So much has changed in my life since then, almost all of it for the better. Better, in fact, beyond my wildest dreams. But if you’ve lost people in this manner you know the lie in the saying that time heals all wounds. A decade later, it remains a work in progress.

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