By the time I woke up, two people were already dead—Emily Hilscher, a freshman animal and poultry sciences major from Woodville, Virginia, and Ryan Christopher Clark, from Martinez, Georgia, known to his friends as “Stack,” an RA in Hilscher’s dorm. From there the gunman would return to his apartment and collect a video to mail to the NBC headquarters before recommencing his campus murder spree, which would claim the lives of more than thirty people. But I didn’t know any of this yet, as the internet in my shabby apartment complex was down again, making it impossible for me to check the news. This was before the days of smartphones and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and I was usually a couple days behind on current events.
It wasn’t until an hour later when I stopped for an oil change on my way to teach my single class that I even got an inkling something had happened.
“You’re not heading to the school, are you?” the man behind the Jiffy Lube counter asked as I handed over my keys. Short and stout with dark pockets beneath his eyes that suggested either hardcore drug usage or several days’ worth of sleeplessness, he spoke as if I were insane for even considering the idea.
“Yeah, I am,” I replied. “Why?
“You didn’t hear about the shooting?”
He directed my attention to the small TV in the top corner of the room, warbling quietly enough that I hadn’t even noticed the footage of my university, throngs of terrified students being hustled about by police in tactical gear.
It was Monday, sunny despite the unseasonal chill, close to the end of my first year as an MFA student. I had chosen Virginia Tech because it was a change from the urban university I had attended for my bachelor’s. I appreciated the large assemblage of gray stone academic buildings, and I liked how it dwarfed Blacksburg’s modest downtown area, a few square blocks of charming boutique shops and restaurants, all of them decked out in university paraphernalia. THIS IS HOKIE COUNTRY! the banners on the doors proclaimed, and that’s how it felt, a nation unto itself, the townsfolk bound together in their ceaseless mission to support the university. And the rolling green hills, I liked those, too. As a child, I’d taken family vacations in my grandparents’ lakeside cabin in the Blue Ridge mountains, and the town’s rocky geography conjured pleasant memories, which helped make the pressure of school manageable. It was a quiet town, a college town, where the only violence seemed to come in the form of fistfights that occasionally broke out between drunk college students outside of bars.
It was unsettling, then, to see the ambulance sweep past outside almost as soon as I’d seen the news. The hospital was next to the auto shop, and I could hear the siren rise in pitch and then fall as it sped by toward the emergency bay. Whether it really was a shooting victim being transported or someone else altogether, I had no way of knowing, but the timing was too uncanny for me not to assume the worst.
As if on cue, my phone vibrated in my pocket. “Are you okay?” my mother asked in a frantic huff.
“I’m okay. I just found out.”
“You’re not near the campus, are you?”
“Oh, thank god!” she said with a relieved sigh.
I spent the remainder of the morning fielding similar calls from friends and family and classmates, my reassurances that I was unharmed eventually taking on the rote dryness of a telemarketer’s script. I crisscrossed the town—the parts that weren’t cordoned off by the police—from one friend’s house to another in search of a computer I could use to contact my students. After managing to secure one, I sent out a message instructing them to call me so I could know they were okay. By this point it was assumed that the shooter was a student, if only because it fit the pattern of previous mass shootings. I could remember the wave of attacks that had, to some degree, characterized my high school years. Pearl, Mississippi and Padukah, Kentucky, both in 1997. Craighead County, Arkansas, in 1998. And of course Columbine in 1999. There were plenty of others that received less coverage. I could recall the grainy news footage, reporters speaking from behind barricades outside of schools, police personnel scampering about in the background. Panels of talking heads on news programs droning on about video games and the dissolution of the family, desperate to ascribe a cause. Anything to rule out the possibility that young people were every bit as capable of senseless carnage as adults.
I am the only child of two academics. My father was a professor of civil engineering for twenty-seven years before his retirement, and my mother, before becoming a counselor at that same university, spent eleven years teaching English in high school and college. It made sense, then, when I entered the MFA program, that teaching—a requisite for my fellowship—would come naturally to me. It helped that I had a background in performance, which I imagined would make me comfortable in front of those doe-eyed groups of learners. I would swagger into the classroom like a conquering hero, unwrap my students’ minds like gifts, turn them onto new ideas, new possibilities, and they would laud me for it. There would be spirited discussions, maybe even a Dead Poets Society-style ovation. O captain, my captain!
However, by that morning in late April it was becoming clear that my parents’ pedagogical prowess had passed me over. I wasn’t judicious in the way that (I imagined) teaching required, and I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of my students’ intellectual development. I didn’t want to be the person they turned to for guidance, because where was I supposed to guide them? Prior to my entry into the MFA program, I’d spent two years working at an animal clinic—the only job I could get after college—cleaning out kennels, analyzing blood samples, and euthanizing elderly house pets. The notion that I had anything of value to impart to a roomful of young people struck me as ludicrous.
But there was something else. Over and over I’d witnessed what young people, teenagers and the like, were capable of. I’d seen the security footage from Columbine, those two black-clad boys wielding automatic weapons as they stalked through the cafeteria in search of prey. In the wake of that attack, I’d seen my own high school fortify its security, enacting a host of rules about who was permitted in the building and when. ID badges were issued to all the students. Locker searches became more common; a couple years later, transparent bookbags would become a mandate. Privately, though, everyone knew that these were stopgap measures at best. With enough determination, it wouldn’t have been hard for another unstable teen to pull off a similar attack.
And so, while I wouldn’t be able to admit it to myself for several years, despite my respect for my students, I was afraid of them. Afraid of the way they watched me as I delivered a lecture, afraid of whispers, silences. Afraid because, in spite of what conventional wisdom tells us, in the classroom they are the ones with the power.
Too wired to sit around my cramped basement apartment waiting for updates from my department chair, I ventured to Barnes and Noble, my customary study locale, for a cup of coffee. Sitting by the floor-to ceiling windows in the cafe, the late morning sun warming my neck, I fell into conversation with a girl who, like me, had been on her way to class that morning before she found that the campus was on lock-down. Predictably, we talked about gun control, bemoaning the country’s overabundance of firearms, and about previous school shootings. At one point, the girl rested her chin in her hand as though lost in a daydream and stared out the window at the leaf-strewn parking lot. She had chin-length hair the color of sandalwood and pale, freckled skin, and she wore a gauzy dress that didn’t seem appropriate for the brisk weather. “It’s pretty simple, I think,” she said. “People just want a reason to kill each other.”
We wanted to believe that the circumstances weighted our words with significance, but we were only regurgitating talking points we’d heard in the news, and the conversation felt shallow and forced. The gunman, we would later learn, didn’t even use an assault rifle. Neither of us were saying what we truly wanted to say, that we felt helpless and scared and angry. Our chatting was only a pretense to cover our fear. But that’s the thing about massacre: it defies language. Any attempt to discuss it seems to strive to contextualize it, to ascribe purpose. So, what purpose, I wondered, did violence of this scale serve? Was it to draw people together as the girl and I had been, to give us a sense of unity? Possibly—though this seemed bleak, cruel. Unity shouldn’t have to come from suffering. Then again, aren’t all bonds formed through some sense of suffering? I didn’t know. All I could say then, talking to the scared girl in the café, was that everything we said seemed beside the point. But we didn’t care. Only later would I realize that it wasn’t what we were saying that mattered, it was the fact that we were saying anything at all.
Time and again I’ve attempted to write about that morning, and each time the effort has felt indecent, selfish. Then again, I suppose seeking to make sense of chaos, which is arguably what writing is all about, is selfish. “All writers,” George Orwell claimed, “are vain, selfish, and lazy.” And despite my intention not to capitalize on others’ tragedies, if there is anything I’ve learned since April 16th, 2007 it’s that even talking about tragedy, one’s proximity to it, is a form of exploitation.
Which makes me wonder, would Orwell have taken issue with the hoard of journalists and newscasters that, within hours of the attack, had descended upon the sleepy mountain town? Some estimates put as many as 600 reporters at the scene, as well as five acres of satellite trucks. Because hotel rooms were so full of media personnel, families of shooting victims resorted to staying in locals’ homes. Perhaps Orwell would have lamented such an onslaught, all those bloodthirsty correspondents bombarding the traumatized students for a quote, though he likely would have understood that thirst, the need to own some part of the tragedy, if only because that makes it easier to assign some meaning to it. Orwell would have sought to answer the question of why, which naturally permeates my memories of that day, many of which have become distorted with grief, like photographs bleached by the sun. Yet, for all I might have forgotten, I do remember, with painful clarity, watching the final body count at a friend’s house that afternoon, a half mile from campus: thirty-three people, including the gunman, who had taken his own life after laying siege to one of the engineering buildings, ensuring the maximum number of deaths by chaining the entry doors shut. Outside the house, the budding dogwoods swayed in the winds coming down off the mountain, while warblers and spring cardinals twittered—a disquieting contrast to the reporter’s somber tone as she informed us that police were still in the process of identifying victims. By early evening, downtown Blacksburg was a circus of activity. Shellshocked students and faculty mulled about like sleepwalkers, some attempting to get a look at the crime scene, though the majority of them, I believe, just didn’t want to be at home by themselves. On the rooftops, law enforcement personnel patrolled, weapons at the ready, like soldiers securing a war-torn village. Camera crews moved through the crowd, interviewing anyone who would talk, while folks in religious garb—robes and clerical collars and, in a couple cases, bright yellow T-shirts bearing the words CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY GRIEF COUNSELOR—offered words of comfort. Young people in maroon and orange sweatshirts stood weeping in clusters on the sidewalks, their arms wrapped around each other’s trembling bodies. I couldn’t help being reminded of footage of people congregating on the streets following a natural disaster, wide-eyed and unsteady, as though they had all been jarred out of an impenetrable slumber at the same moment. By this point I had heard from all of my students, so I knew they were okay. Which made me lucky, certainly more than those colleagues who had lost students and friends—several of them would never return to the classroom. But I didn’t feel lucky. In a bizarre way, I felt as though I’d let my students down, because I had nothing of any real substance to offer when they called me, just the same banalities that crisis always seems to inspire. Everything will be okay.
It was a lie, of course. Or at least, I didn’t believe it at the time, and I suspect my students didn’t either. How could they, knowing what they now knew about the world, that not even the scholarly amenity of a college campus was safe? Of course, Virginia Tech was not the first mass school shooting in U.S. history—not even close, in fact. In the wake of the attack, Italy’s Il Manifesto newspaper had claimed the shooting to be “as American as apple pie,” a reference to the centuries-old ritual of school slaughter in America, which dates all the way back to the 1700s. However, as of that morning it was the largest—a fact that reporters took a disconcerting degree of satisfaction in proclaiming—and as such it was impossible not to feel like we had turned a corner as a culture, one beyond which our notions of safety were now subject to question. It wasn’t that we were any less safe than we were before—it was, we were realizing, that we never had been safe in the first place.
The media package that the gunman sent to NBC might have arrived earlier than Wednesday—two days after the attack—had he not included the wrong address and ZIP code. In it were 29 pictures of him in various menacing poses. In some of them he was brandishing the handguns he would use to carry out the massacre. In one picture he clutched a hammer with both hands, his teeth barred, as though threatening to bludgeon the viewer’s skull. In addition to the pictures were a 23-page written statement and 28 QuickTime video clips in which he spoke to the viewer in vaguely threatening proclamations. “I could have left. I could have fled,” he said. “But no, I will no longer run.”
While NBC would ultimately opt not to release the entire package to the public, it would air portions of the video, pledging to give it “no more than 10 percent of airtime.” Other networks would echo similar sentiments. ABC News would vow to use only screen-grab shots as much as possible. “Once you’ve seen it,” senior vice president Jeffrey Schneider would say, “its repetition is little more than pornography once that first news cycle is passed.”
Nonetheless, critics would be very vocal about the decision to give any coverage to such a monster. Some of those close to the victims would cancel interviews with the network in protest. The American Psychological Association would release an open letter urging NBC not to show any of the videos: “The publicity of the…materials not only seems insensitive to the grieving and traumatized families, friends and peers of those murdered and injured, but also seriously jeopardizes the public’s safety by potentially inciting ‘copycat’ suicides, homicides, and other incidents.”
Of course, we didn’t know any of this yet, those of us who had gathered at the home of one of my professors to sit around on the patio sipping bourbon out of pint glasses, nursing a weighted silence like funeral mourners. What we did know, as it had been reported by Reuters a few hours earlier, was that the gunman was a member of our department, an English major—a fact that we couldn’t help taking personally, as though we were somehow implicated in the matter. None of us knew him, except for the professor, who had taught the student in a playwriting workshop the previous semester. Already, passages from a play the student had written had been leaked to the press, a one-act piece in which a young man accuses his stepfather of pedophilia. It was incoherently violent, childish in its attempts to be shocking, but that was enough to convince many people that his murderous inclinations should have been detected. All day long the professor’s phone had been ringing, reporters and news agencies vying for a quote. He’d ignored them all, as he had ignored the hundreds of emails he’d received so far, most of them expressing support and sympathy but some castigating him for not intervening. Just stand up and admit you’re responsible, one of them demanded.
“How was I supposed to know?” he kept repeating, battling back tears, speaking into his glass. “How the hell do you anticipate something like this?”
We assured him that he couldn’t have, that there was no way to predict killing of this scale, though deep down I think we all felt responsible, just a little, simply because of our nearness to it. As we would be reminded time and again over the next couple weeks whenever a journalist sought us out for a word, prompting the university to ban all media personnel from the campus, our perceived connection to the gunman suggested, unreasonably or not, that we should have had some control over it. It’s easy to dissociate oneself from a tragedy in which one has no stake. But the closer we are to such an event, the more inclined we are to ask ourselves what we might have done to prevent it.
And yet, our inability to understand only makes us want to all the more, because understanding is a form of control—isn’t it? Yes, it reaffirms our belief that everything has a cause. That’s what we want, a reason. We want the why, if only because it does away with the frightening suggestion that some things just seem to happen, with no apparent catalyst, implying a level of complexity to the world that we aren’t prepared, or even engineered, to recognize. It reminds us that, to a greater degree than we would like to admit, we are at the mercy of pure chance, a notion that seems to strip us of any agency. Is it any less troubling to think that the gunman did not seek out specific targets but instead chose his victims at random?
What we wanted that night, I think, as we sat in the weak glow of the patio light brooding over our drinks, the bitter winds biting at our necks, was for all of this—the murders, our tenuous connection to the perpetrator, the media carnival—to mean something. And the fact that it didn’t was more terrifying than any answer we could have come up with.
In many ways, the active shooter drills becoming commonplace in schools have supplanted the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War era, in which students were instructed to crouch beneath their desks with their hands over their necks and faces in preparation for a nuclear attack. They still saddle the teacher with the unreasonable expectation of protecting students from certain death, and for the students they are still an exercise in trauma. However, while the threat in question used to be out there, external to the classroom, now it is the classroom itself. When teachers in Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain school district stock their rooms with buckets of rocks to be thrown at an assailant, they aren’t prepping students for attacks from some outside perpetrator; they are prepping them for attacks from one of their peers.
For many of us, this constant sense of hazard has intensified our affection and concern for our students: we want to protect them, and increasingly there are new dangers from which they need protection. They are scared, and we want to assuage that fear. But those feelings are often tempered by a sense of wariness, because so often the students are the danger. Which, naturally, perverts the spirit of education. How can we expect them to open up to new ideas, and how can we be responsive to their needs, when education demands that we guard ourselves at all times?
These days I teach at a modestly sized liberal arts college in South Carolina. Semester after semester, kids filter in and out of my classroom, four months at a stretch, and then vanish from my life, blending into the sea of faces on campus. For the most part I enjoy them, their youthful buoyancy, though I confess there are moments when I wonder if I’ve made the right career choice, namely when I find myself facing off against an unruly young person. For instance, I was forced to confront one in 2014 about his lack of engagement in the class, to which he responded by calling me a fucking homo and tossing a stack of papers across the room, assuring me before storming out that he would be back, despite my request that he not return to class. Mostly, it’s his eyes I recall—vacant, lifeless, dispassionate, like staring into the face of a machine. Once he was gone, I instructed the rest of the students to leave the building, and I called campus security. As I relayed to the bored-looking guard what had happened, I couldn’t stop shaking. I suspected that he believed I was overreacting, and I imagine that I was, but all I could think about was the Virginia Tech gunman’s pitiless veneer leering at me from every major news site years prior, and what the girl in the café had said: People just want a reason to kill each other.
Yet, when the student was expelled from the university weeks later after a formal investigation (apparently, there had been other incidents with other teachers), there was none of the cathartic satisfaction I had anticipated, only a cold gutless sense of betrayal. Not just against him, but against all of my students. Because as much as I wanted to believe that they were inherently good, incapable of causing harm, all it takes is a day like that one in 2007 to shake your faith in the classroom as a sanctuary. As educators, we’ve seen enough to know what is at stake, and the many ways it can go wrong.
Everything will be okay.
So many monsters to confront, and always with the wrong kind of weaponry. Except, I’m tired of monsters. Tired of the fear that any day now my students and I will become names in a news story with words like “massacre” in the title. Tired of the mandatory active shooter training sessions, of bracing myself for the next disaster. Above all, I’m tired of how my own exhaustion feels contrived, as though simply acknowledging the problem is the punchline to a joke that everyone is sick of hearing.
And yet, I know that this world is no utopia. Monsters are as much a fact of it as I am. “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre,” Kurt Vonnegut tells us in Slaughterhouse Five, which makes writing about an event like Virginia Tech especially difficult. To say that we’ve grown immune to the shock of mass shootings is itself a cliché. But the fact remains: we’ve all been conditioned to expect the next bullet.