Four scenes from Virginia Tech.

Leaving the Convocation

Scene one. I’m standing on the Drillfield. Small groups of students are filtering by me, all headed directly for the coliseum, where the convocation is scheduled to start in couple of hours. Nearly everybody is wearing orange and maroon, the school colors, the t-shirts left over from a big game last fall. Almost everybody is silent. My camera is mounted on a tripod, my telephoto lens allowing me to photograph people from an enormous distance, so as not to bother them. I’m frustrated at the photos that I’m getting. These people don’t look particularly sad. They’re not crying. Some are smiling. They’re just people walking. If these people won’t look sad, I think, then they’re not useful to me.

In Remembrance

Scene two. Two boys, barely older than toddlers, play with a small blue ball as their mothers look on. They’re the only people under the age of 18 that I’ve seen in a while. The sun is shining, it’s nearly 60°. They are happy.

Satellite Dishes

Scene three. I’m sitting in the Squires Student Center. About twenty of us have commandeered a television to watch the convocation, and we’re sitting around a series of tables adjacent to the dining hall. To my left are a pair of South Korean reporters and their American translator. In front of me are two parents with their pre-teen daughter. The rest of the people are students, clad in requisite orange and maroon. Five freshman girls are smiling, talking, doing something with their hands. Two people at the table next to them are doing the same thing. And then the man and his daughter join in. Something involving ribbon and scissors. They’re making black ribbons, snipping off short lengths, twisting them, and fastening them at their intersection. As each ribbon is completed it is tossed into a cardboard box, awaiting distribution.

Burruss Hall

Scene four. I’m in a favorite lunch spot, the rush crowd gone, just a few customers, the owner, and a pair of employees still there. The television is set to CNN, the only way for us to find out what’s going on two blocks away. Reporters ask the same question of student after student: Will you be sad for our cameras? They talk to the mail carrier for the parents of the suspect. A map of Centreville, Alabama is shown. The reporters speak familiarly of Virginia Tech, repetitively describing the 26,000 person campus as a “close-knit,” as if repeating that will make it true. Those in the restaurant jeer at the reporters, the grief vultures who will stick around only until the scraps are gone. Two vaguely familiar CNN reporters, a man and a woman, talk about those who have died in personal terms. The man makes a parallel to his own college-aged son. He begins to cry.

20 thoughts on “Four scenes from Virginia Tech.”

  1. Hi Waldo, just a note of support and to thank you for posting from VT. Hope you’ve seen the photo of the new graffiti on the bridge that Scott Jolly posted on Cville Blogs. It did give my heart a moment of warmth in this chilling circumstance.
    Best regards, Diane

  2. I think most who went to Tech – most – would describe the campus as “close-knit,” at least as close-knit as a campus with 26,000 people can be. I haven’t been in Blacksburg these last couple of days but my friends have described to me how they have bonded with people they barely knew before, whether it’s to comfort someone who has lost a friend or gathering students together to plan the vigil last night. I was a freshman there on Sept. 11, and it wasn’t unusual to see people grieving together simply because they were both from the DC or NY area. Of course students typically have their groups of friends but in times of devastation everyone supports each other.

    Listening to the shooter’s roommates being interviewed on CNN I think reinforces the idea that the students there are close knit, they do look out for each other. The roommates said that although Cho never said a word to them, they attempted to converse with him and invited him to a party. They also contacted police when he threatened suicide. English faculty also tried to reach out to him. For a large campus where you are largely on your own to meet friends and talk to professors, it’s pretty generous that even three people tried to reach this guy who talked to no one.

  3. Waldo, I totally agree with you re: the media. I watched as these “journalists” basically demended that the students and others they interviewed cry or show their pain, and the questions they ask are so inane and trite; “Your sister died, are you sad? Is your mother crying?”

    Despicable.

  4. I can’t see a guy’s relationship with his roommates translating to a close-knit campus. That’s just being a reasonable human being. And though it’s good to see that many students have newly discovered the value of being friendly and open with total strangers on campus, that just didn’t exist before, and I suspect that it won’t exist for long.

    People often describe Charlottesville as a socially small town, and claim that everybody’s no more than 1-2 degrees removed from anybody else. That’s not true. What they mean — but they don’t know that they mean — is that the rich people are no more than 1-2 degrees removed from the rich people, the middle class people are no more than 1-2 degrees removed from the middle class people, and the poor people are no more than 1-2 degrees removed from the poor people. Functionally, this means that all of us who are white know the white folks, and the black folks know the black folks. Also, the folks who are local know the locals, and the folks who moved here know the folks who moved here.

    Virginia Tech, like Charlottesville and like most of the nation, is divided up among many lines. All of the sub-communities are no doubt closely knit. The black freshmen biology majors probably do well together, as do the senior political science majors from Northern Virginia.

    If there’s anything close knit about the Virginia Tech community — defined as any closer than any other group of people at a given university — I didn’t witness it while I was there, and it was never suggested to me. That doesn’t make it a bad place, in that regard. Just regular.

  5. Waldo- Just a comment on your scene 2. Listening to an NPR interview of Ralph Cozart (Ralph’s World/children’s music), Ralph was asked how he performed a concert shortly after Sept. 11, and how he dealt with the grief of the situation in his music. His response was that he didn’t address the grief at all; he felt that children must not be burdened with concepts as emotional suffering and fear when there are great and exciting things around them. I’m thankful that I can sit with my children and absorb some of their innocence- and that they are unburdened by the tremendous pain that is often part of our adult lives.

  6. Thanks for the link, Judge, that’s the kind of thing I was talking about. I have no other school really to compare Tech to, but from talking to my friends who went to George Mason, UNC, even UVA, I always felt like there was something about being a Hokie that was different from being a student at most other schools. Sports commentators have said as much when they come to Tech. And it’s also part of the reason why many non-Hokies think we’re so obnoxious.

  7. Thanks for this posting, Waldo. This is the first report I have read outside of the main steam media and found it to be very refreshing.

    I can’t understand why CNN shows those same dumb clips; that heavy set police officer running down the street with an automatic weapon again, or cadets walking along the sidewalk, or a police woman jumping out of a police car, over and over and over. The mindless commentary makes a mockery of this tragedy.

    I wonder, is this the kind of coverage that Americans really want to see?

  8. what happened in blacksburg was really, really sad, but people are “massacered” in iraq and other parts of the world everyday. who really gives a $hit about them? we just need to keep things in perspective…

    – ex-republican

  9. Waldo: Where is your burnt orange and harvard maroon son! You look like an outsider.

    I’m a Hokie, and a longtime Blacksburg townie. Let me take a stab at the Hokie Nation thing. Tech is unique amongst Virginia universities and most other universities.

    1)Setting: VT is located in a small town in the most remote corner of the state on a 2000 ft. mountain plateau, surrounded on three sides by national forest with a natural beauty little changed in the last 100 years. An American Heritage River, the New River tumbles down from North Carolina Blue Ridge and flows west of the campus. If you want cosmopolitan stay in town, if you want nature, walk out Toms Creek Road. There are a handful of university settings like it, none in Virginia.

    2)Value: Tech offers a high quality education at a good price. The university is gaining widespread recognition for the quality of that education, but thrifty education shoppers have known this since before the days of the GI bill, when veterans lived in shanties where Cassell Coliseum now stands. The appreciation grows with time and experience.

    3)Community: Tech is a blue-collar university. Our motto; “Ut Prosim” (That I May Serve) depicts our education, our discipline, and our heritage. Sure we have rich kids, and trustfunders, but we don’t know why they came here. For the most part, our families share a common experience, work ethic, and financial means. Capability is valued above social position.

    4)Small Town: Blacksburg is Virginia’s largest town. But it is still a town. The motto “Citizens First” is real. Townies have a sense of control and involvement in the affairs of Blacksburg. The mayor, council members, and town staff are accessible on a first name basis, and most have direct connections to Virginia Tech. We love the youthful exuberance that springs eternal from the students. The town attracts faculty, and retains capable graduates.

    5)Experience: VT is at least half day drive from the front door of most student’s home. Which means you can’t commute, you have to find your own way – beyond your parent’s hover. You will bond with other students and share the same experience. You will live in a safe community (Blacksburg)that revolves around the education experience. You will come of age.

    6)The campus: Compact, with inspiring Gothic-style dolomite stone buildings – Virginia Tech is an expensive gift from a hopeful Commonwealth to affirm a commitment to the aspirations of founder Thomas Jefferson when he endorsed “general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom”. We are real damn thankful. And we are real sad.

  10. Where is your burnt orange and harvard maroon son! You look like an outsider.

    That photo isn’t of me, though I can see that, given the text that follows, that’s not obvious. I photographed him because he looked like an outsider, but also because he looked like he was bearing a burden that was written on the faces of few others in the crowd.

  11. Waldo,

    I think you missed the Hokie experience. While I was there we had a longing to be more like Texas A&M and develop some traditions. Well, those have developed. Tech has a collective conscience and I find it almost impossible to believe if a student wanted to feel like he belonging he could not find it. There are more than 300 student groups, 90 majors. Tech is huge but can also feel warm and friendly like old friends sharing stories because people at Tech care about everyone meshing together to be part of the greater collective whole.

  12. I actually find that top photo (which I believe is also on cville news) to be really disorienting and bizaare — like, it’s not a picture of a crowd of students, but it’s very much a picture of THAT guy. But who is that guy? Why is he walking so purposefully? Why are you putting him in a context where he effectively becomes a visual representation of this tragedy? it just gets weirder every time i look at it.

    regarding the ensuing press coverage: much like the world trade center bombing in 2001, i’m really glad i don’t own a TV right now. just reading about what happened in an AP report is hard enough; i really don’t think I could handle TV news falling over themselves in a competition to see who can produce the most obscene coverage of this tragedy over and over again.

  13. I can’t answer any of your questions, James, but I can say that I find the picture strange for all of the same reasons that you do. It gets more arresting every time that I look at it. He may have been the only person that I saw who appeared to have a sense of purpose. Everybody else was in stages of shock, disappointment, sadness and confusion. Here was a guy quite literally not going with the flow, looking sad but purposeful, looking straight at me (albeit from a considerably distance).

    No TV for me, either. It makes me angry. I’m dropping radio today, too. That’s after I listened to Laura Ingram explain yesterday that both Charlottesville and Blacksburg are part of the Bible belt, both conservative Christian towns, and thus it was inappropriate and quasi-terroristic to have an Islamic prayer at the convocation.

  14. Montgomery County went for Jim Webb in November. Blacksburg played a big role in that. That’s the “conservative Christian town” that is just “full of guns,” as one Australian media outlet reported. It was obvious that this reporter had never been to Virginia, much less Blacksburg, and for research had only interviewed two or three former Tech students who already had an agenda to push. I also get angry when I hear people bashing President Steger and campus police. And when I hear about Fred Phelps planning to protest at any memorial services he can find. Yes, it’s better just to avoid the media for a few days, except for the Washington Post, which had a well-written albeit haunting narrative in today’s paper.

  15. To Dan Kachur:

    If you could choose to feel the same amount of grief at every violent or tragic death, would you? Would you choose to feel a constant drip of sorrow that never increased even at the untimely loss of a loved one?

    No, I don’t think so. Clearly every death, and every tragic event is different. And there are many reasons why certain people feel more for the loss at VA Tech than in Iraq — cultural dissimilarities, inability to identify, geographic separation, lack of kinship and friendship ties, shock and surprise… I’m sure you could list a bunch more, just as I’m sure that most Iraqis feel less grief over this tragedy than the tragedies in their country every day.

    I suggest, if you don’t want to elicit the “F U” response from those not predisposed to your position, that you stop denying the differences that are so obvious, and start explaining why they should not mean a difference in our sense of purpose to prevent future loss. An uncharitable reader would see your words as an attempt to co-opt our grief as anger towards George Bush’s foreign policy. And even a charitable auditor could read Jonation’s words as an indictment of anyone who feels particularly sympathetic towards the VA Tech tragedy.

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