For years after April 16, 2007, that was the response I often received when telling people that I attended Virginia Tech. This year officially marks 10 years since that horrific day, and I still struggle to find the words to explain why you shouldn’t be sorry.
I’ll never forget that cold April morning, it was actually snowing in Blacksburg. I was at my field placement at a local elementary school when I got a text from one of my roommates that there was a shooter on campus. To be completely honest, I thought it was another empty threat that we’d already had a couple of that year, and was trying to figure out how I could use it to get out of there early. But when the director of the school came over and told me I should immediately go back to my apartment and not leave, I knew it was serious. Fortunately, I called my mom on my short ride home to let her know what I had heard because just minutes later all of the phone and internet connections would be jammed from 25,000 people trying to contact their families.
A lot of what happened after that on April 16th is a blur. All I can tell you is that I spent hours sitting in my desk chair, a constant flow of tears rolling down my face, watching photos and videos of my campus scroll across my tv. It didn’t seem real. There was no way all of this was happening less than a mile from where I sat. There was no way these numbers were correct. There was no way this little slice of heaven I existed in so comfortably could have something so tragic happen. But it was real. And it was horrible.
However, it was the days that followed that have ultimately shaped a lot of my memories surrounding April 16th. Thousands of students came together and, without even recognizing it, showed the world what it truly means to be a Hokie. We stood together, we cried together, we cheered together. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt anything more powerful than Nikki Giovanni’s “We are Virginia Tech” followed by the chanting of “Let’s Go Hokies” and the very first attempt at a smile. That night, we gathered on the drillfield, a place we had all been hundreds of times before; playing sports, sitting in the sun, walking to class, or promoting events. But this time was different. We huddled close to each other and had our very first candlelight vigil for the 32 fallen Hokies, and again, closed with a cheer. These are the moments that let me know we’d be okay.
Has it been easy to move on? Heck no! Even for me, who watched the events unfold from my apartment off campus, it has been difficult. The summer after the shooting, I was camping in the Outer Banks. When it was time to zip up the tent and go to bed, I had my first ever panic attack. I was terrified that there was no door I could lock or anywhere for me to hide if someone were to try and hurt us. During my first job out of graduate school, I had a student who had a discipline history of bomb threats towards his school. I had nightmares about this student attacking me for weeks. Even still, lock down drills make me nervous, and I couldn’t participate in our Safe Schools mock shooter drill. I rarely mention these thoughts and anxieties, and I never share where they come from. After all, I wasn’t even on campus that day, so what right do I have to feel that way? I mean, I know people who were shot, people who were cowering beneath desks, people who witnessed classmates die. I only watched it on tv.
What I’ve come to realize over the past decade, though, is that regardless of where any of us were that day, Virginia Tech was our home, our safe space, and when your home is invaded and something so unimaginable happens there, it will affect you. But please don’t ever tell me “I’m sorry.” Because, yes, we were scared and heartbroken and defeated on April 16, 2007. But we also knew there was no place we’d rather be. The days that followed the worst tragedy were filled with the most love and comfort I’ve ever experienced. I believe those of us who experienced this first hand developed a passion and unity that can’t be put into words. Yes, we may be a little obnoxious and over-enthusiastic about our school, but remember, we are constantly living for those 32 Hokies we lost. Everything we do is something that they didn’t get the chance to and I know I will work harder, love better, and cheer louder because of them.
I am proud to be a Hokie.
I was on April 16th, 2007. I am today. I will be forever.