Some of you have contacted me over the last 24 hours or so, remembering my proximity to Virginia Tech – my town of Roanoke, Virginia and Blacksburg, Virginia being just about 35 miles apart. Folks were kind enough to ask if I had any family at Tech.
I appreciate the concern. No, my two older kids are out of school now and my youngest is still in high school. So we are all well - as well as any of us who live in this area can be that is. Roanoke and Blacksburg are closely intertwined, with Virginia Tech being the major university in the area and the alma mater of many people here. More important, there are many young people from Roanoke who are Tech students. So while the whole nation was horrified by what was taking place, here in Roanoke it was very personal – since virtually everybody knows someone there.
Yesterday as the news started hitting I called several parents here to see if they had heard from their children. With each call I felt better, as folks told me that they had spoken with their kids and that they were safe.
Then I called my friend Mike, since I knew that his son was an engineering student – a senior – at Tech. He said, “No, I haven’t reached Brian yet. He didn’t pick up his cell phone, but that’s not unusual. I’m sure he’s ok though.” Of course he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t at all sure, and we both knew that.
We watched and read the news together over the phone as more and more details came out. He noted that the first shootings took place in Ambler Johnston Hall and mentioned that he knew where that was – he himself having gone to Virginia Tech back when we were young, back before young people routinely killed each other in random mass attacks. I asked where Brian would likely be and Mike said “Most of the time in Norris Hall. That’s a long way from Ambler Johnston.”
Then, within just a minute or so we both read that it wasn’t just confined to the two shootings at Ambler Johnston. Soon, the words “Norris Hall” and “engineering” started popping up with frequency as the details began to emerge.
Mike got quiet, as did I. Then he said, “I guess I’d better go and try to reach him some more.” He promised to call me as soon as he heard anything.
I only felt a fraction of his fear. A smidgen of his panic. I only got a glimmer, a glimpse of what Mike and many other parents were experiencing yesterday. And it terrified me nonetheless.
Any parent who has ever worried about a child driving home and being later than he should, or watched as she almost toddled into traffic, or felt helpless as he was wheeled away to the operating room, can imagine what Mike and others were enduring yesterday.
I wanted to call somebody. I wanted to watch the news. I knew I should get some work done. But I left the office and walked the two blocks to my home. What I actually wanted was to see my son.
I remembered that he was at home, studying for an afternoon test at the community college where he also takes courses, and it seemed important for me to talk to him. But he wasn’t at the house after all, having decided to study at the college. Now I knew that his school wasn’t Virginia Tech and I knew that he was ok, but I still felt compelled to reach him. I made up an excuse and called him to talk about something that could have easily waited until later – knowing that if I told him that I really just wanted to hold him and hug him and hide him, he’d think the old man had gone nuts.
On my way back to work I stopped in to two little family stores in this quiet neighborhood of ours – Lipes Pharmacy to pick up a prescription and Tinnell’s Grocery for a Diet Coke. While I was in the grocery my cell phone rang and it was my office. My heart froze when they told me that Mike had called and left word for me. He had news of his son.
Brian was fine.
And his dad was fine. And my son was fine. And all’s right with the world.
Well, no. Not really.
Our quiet little neighborhood somehow didn’t seem so quiet, and Tinnell’s and Lipes didn’t feel like Mayberry anymore. Blacksburg and Roanoke are just a half an hour apart, and Blacksburg and Roanoke are forever changed.
I know I’ll never pass a Luby’s restaurant again without being reminded of Killeen, Texas. And now, let’s do a quick word association. I say “Columbine.” Do you say “pretty little purple flower” or does your mind immediately flash to the senseless and evil violence at that school?
Oh, and someone reading this is certain to question my use of the word “evil.” Let me be clear:
E-V-I-L. Or perhaps “wicked” makes my point more plainly to you. Please, please spare me the diatribes about poor little bullied and socially disenfranchised young people acting out in the only way they know how. Evil, wicked, senseless, cowardly, hurtful, despicable, and once again evil I say.
And now, Virginia Tech and Blacksburg will always be known, not as a fine school and a nice town, but instead as the place where evil once again robbed life and hope and promise. 32 people were lost, and another 22,000 or so young people lost their youth, as something wicked their way came.
And here in Roanoke, I’m not sure that things will ever be exactly the same either. You see, even if you don’t know somebody who was hurt or killed, or know their families, this is a small enough community and the degrees of separation close enough that inevitably you will know someone who knows someone who was impacted.
Classes will resume, and life will go on, and kids will learn and study and graduate. People and towns and even schools have remarkable resilience. But let’s not think for even a moment that things haven’t changed.
I’m kind of afraid that people watched the news for a moment yesterday and thought “Oh, another school shooting - what a shame” and then switched to the sports channel or MTV.
We get used to evil and violence and it doesn’t shock us the way it once did. We get hardened to it, and accustomed to it and inured to it, and we come to accept it as routine. And that’s a change that bodes poorly for us all.
“Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today …”
Marvin Gaye – “What’s Goin’ On?”
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