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Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Virginia Tech Massacre: 10 Years Later


I remember when I was young my class took a field trip to visit a professor at Virginia Tech.  It was maybe 3rd or 4th grade.  It was one of those days that you spend in "awe" as a child.  Seeing the huge buildings and full classrooms of people you consider to be "so old" (because being 18 was sooooo many years away when your 10 years old).  We looked at those students and thought "wow, I'm going to be like them one day" and you admire how free and fun their lives must be.  I remember thinking how nice it must be to get to choose which classes you take.

We went into this big classroom, in one of the engineering buildings (I'm not sure which one it was, they move departments constantly in such a large school).  There were cool posters on the walls and images of students and their amazing projects in the hall.  The classroom was auditorium style with maybe 75-100 seats.  I climbed the concrete steps and sat down in one of those stadium style chairs (you know the kind that the seat folds down and there's a plastic back connected to the riser of floor the row behind you).  I was a few rows back from the front, close enough to be able to see and hear, but far enough back that I could be considered "cool".  I don't remember who sat next to me, but I know I was in a row full of my friends.  We weren't the super cool kids, just the ones that floated around in the middle.  Some of us dorks to the core, some of us a little weird, and some of us a little cool.  But we thought of ourselves as the cool kids, in our own way.

I remember when the professor walked out in front of us and started his computer at the desk in the front.  Those were the days when there was still a green chalk board on the wall at the front of the classroom and there was a white screen that you pulled down so that you could project your powerpoint presentation in front of the chalk board.  The rest is a blur.  I think the excitement took over.

I remember images of bridges and buildings.  Talk of water systems, ecology, and lots of technical terms.  The professor explained to us how all of these amazing things he was showing us were engineered projects.  Things that required Math and Science.  Projects that he had worked on and got to be a part of.

My parents were in the Architecture field.  My dad was an Interior Design Professor in the College of Architecture and my mom had been on the College Planning Team for years.  I had seen their designs and been to be buildings that they had helped design.  I knew what being a designer meant because my parents had showed me.  But I had never considered that there were things other than buildings that needed to be designed.  That there was a whole team of Engineers that design bridges and water systems.  That those systems needed to be developed on a city-wide and even region-wide scale.  It was all very awe-inspiring.

I left the classroom that day and told my friend how absolutely cool I thought her dad was and how he had the most awesome job in the world.  It was one of those moments that shape the rest of your life.  One of those moments that influences you forever.  Like your eyes had been closed and suddenly they were open to a whole new world of possibilities.

Years went by.  I remained friends with that professor's daughter.  She was one of those faithful friends that doesn't leave your side no matter how much you change. When our social circles changed in High School she was one of the few people from my childhood I remained friends with.  When I started running with the "wrong" crowd, she stayed my friend.  When I got pregnant in my senior year and so many of the people I thought were my friends shunned me, she stayed my friend.  And now, years later, even though our lives took us to different colleges and now different states, even though we have lost track of each other and have only seen each other a handful of times, I still consider her my friend.  She's one of those friends that lasts a lifetime.

I was lost my first year in college.  Partly because I was a new mom (seriously, I had my daughter 7 days before the first day of my first class my freshman year) and partly because I didn't like the program I was in.  I didn't like the professor I had.  I didn't like the environment that I was learning in.  I didn't like the pressure or the criticism or the hours that the program demanded.  I had chosen Architecture.  It just wasn't for me.   In fact, my Freshman Studio professor told me that the program wasn't for me.  It was another of those life changing moments.

I don't remember who gave me this advice, but someone who knew I was miserable in the Architecture program told me that I needed to think about what I really wanted to do.  They told me to think about something that inspired me, something that I got excited about, and switch to that program.  I knew I wanted to design.  I had this desire to be creative and to use those creative abilities to "help the world" and I knew that something in a design field would give me that opportunity.  I thought back to that field trip in Elementary School.  I thought about the passion that the professor had for the designs he had helped with.  I thought about the feeling I had when I had left the classroom.  I knew that THAT was what I wanted to do.  Of course, I dislike Math (it was always something I could do well and that I understood, but I didn't LIKE it) so I knew that Engineering wasn't for me.  So, I found the best of both worlds with Landscape Architecture.

I sat in the Landscape Architecture studio my first day and I just KNEW that I was were I was supposed to be.  I could feel it.  The inspiration radiating off of the professors.  The energy in the studio.  The feeling of being part of something great, the feeling that there were endless possibilities.  It was a great feeling.  I thrived in that program.  Its the time of my life when I felt indestructible.  I knew what I wanted and I was working hard to get it, enjoying every moment.  It was a five year program that demanded a great deal of work.  Work that I loved.

And then I took a hydrology class. My professor from that class probably doesn't realize just how much I loved it.  He always joked that I was the "phantom student" because I would do my work so quickly, but it was because I loved it, and I got it.  I ended up loving it so much that I took extra classes during the summer sessions and took a ridiculous course load during the regular semesters so that I could take courses in Wetland Soils, Geology, Evolutionary History, Site Reclamation, Environmental Science, Environmental Law, and Forestry.

All that hard work paid off because I was set to graduate a semester early.  I was was supposed to finish a 5 year program in 4.5 years and not only that, but I was finishing Cum Laude and with a minor.  Life was falling into place.  I was passionate about what I was doing and I loved every second of it.

And then it all came crashing down.

I woke up that Monday morning, just like any other. I was coming to the end of my 4th year and I was on cloud-nine.  I had plans to do a summer semester to start my Thesis project and then only had filler classes and one final Thesis studio the Fall 2007 semester before I graduated in December. Then I could start the rest of my life doing what I loved and loving what I did.  I had class on Global Crops at 10am and a Landscape Architecture Studio that afternoon at 1pm.  Other than that I didn't have much planned.

I was going to do what I did every Monday morning.  I planned to park next to where my afternoon Studio was, so that if I ended up staying late to work I wouldn't have to walk too far in the dark to get back to my car.  Then I would walk across campus to arrive at my Global Crops a few minutes before 10am (giving me enough time to run to the snack machine before class, they had those spicy Chex Mix packs that I loved).  I did what I did every morning in those days.  Woke up, took a shower, got dressed while my daughter played on the floor in our living room, then I got her dressed, fed, and we left the house around 8:00am for the 10 minute drive to daycare.

The route I normally took to get from the parking lot to my Global Crops class on the other side of campus.  There was a parking lot right beside the class, but I liked to take a few minutes to enjoy the scenery while I took that morning walk across campus.  I also liked to be parked near my afternoon class so that if I stayed late to finish up some work (the Studio class started at 1 and was supposed to end at 5, but I rarely left before 6 or 7)

My parents owned the daycare that my daughter went to and my mom was her preschool teacher.  It was a great set-up.  I grew up there and I wanted my daughter to grow up there too.  Surrounded by family.  We walked into the 3 year old preschool classroom that morning around 8:10, at the exact same time as another mom who was dropping off her 8 year old son (who I happened to work with 2 days a week in the after school program).  She was a nice mom and her son was always very polite and mostly well behaved (more than other 8 year old boys).  They came from a strict Jehovah's Witness family and were perhaps the first people I had met of that faith.  They are one of the reasons I am always very receptive and cordial when Jehovah's Witnesses come to my door now.  It's out of respect.

Anyway, she was there talking with my mom.  Once my daughter had run off into the room to play, the two of them quickly pulled me aside.  She was a housekeeper in West Ambler Johnston Hall and was running late to work that morning.  She was supposed to be at work by 8am, but through some strange moment of fate she was running late and had received a call around 8am that there had been an incident in the residency hall earlier that morning and to wait to come into work because the building was on lock-down.  Having co-workers inside the building, she was told that there had been a shooting and that two students were dead.  Her co-worker continued to give her updates about what she was hearing as the next 15 minutes went on.  By then I had sat down next to my mom, and was chatting while waiting for information.  I had decided to blow off my regular ritual of strolling across campus and was determined to just park next to my class and then move my car before studio (an odd decision for me because parking became an increasing nightmare around lunch time and it would have been a miracle to find a spot at that point in the day).  

It wasn't until much later that I realized that this chance meeting and odd parking decision might have saved my life, or at least spared me from the atrocities I might have seen if I had gone about my regular Monday schedule.  You see, I would have passed by Norris Hall just around the time that the shootings took place.  Had I been there earlier I would have seen Seung-Hui Cho chaining the doors shut.  Had I been there around 9:30 I might have heard the first shots. Had I walked by around 9:40 I might have seen students jumping from windows to avoid the massacre or seen SWAT storm the building.  

Students, faculty, and staff received an email around 9:30am that morning telling us about the two deaths in West Ambler Johnson that morning.  Of course, word travels quickly in a small town with a huge college presence and the News outlets were already covering the information.  About 20 minutes later we received an email telling us that a gunman was loose on campus.  It told us not to come to campus and if we were already on campus to stay inside and away from windows.

I'm not sure what possessed me to stay at the daycare so long.  I should have left by 9:40am in order to park and get to class on time.  It wasn't far away from the daycare, but parking was always a hassle, and I hated being late to class.  But I was still there when I got the 2nd email.  By then, my younger sister had called from my mom's house (where she lived at the time in a basement apartment) and told us that the news was going nuts.  My mom told me to go home and tell her what was happening.  That was the age before we all had smart phones and the daycare didn't have cable or internet to keep us updated.  So I took my daughter and drove to our house.  

It's dumb thinking back.  We lived 2 blocks away from campus.  I had to drive by campus to get home.  Clearly we didn't think this part through.  It was about 10am at that point.  We had arrived home and stepped out of the car to the sound of sirens.  I lived near the ambulance station.  The sirens.  Oh my gosh the sirens.  I remember being shocked by the sound of them when I got out of the car.  I guess I hadn't expected to hear them.  Remember, we didn't know that there had been a Mass Shooting at that point, we just knew that 2 people had been killed and that there was a gunman on the loose.  Everyone had theorized that the first 2 victims were the only victims and that the shooting was an isolated incident.  That the manhunt for the shooter was just a formality while they hunted down evidence and captured the person responsible.  We really didn't know anything at all.  

So we gathered some things up from our house with the intention of going to my parents house to hang out with my sister until I was either cleared to go to my afternoon studio, or until my parents got home from work.  While we were home the sirens continued.  I logged onto my computer determined to check my email again in case there was an update.  I remember I looked up, peering out the window, to see an ambulance go zooming down main street towards the campus.  The sirens echoed off the apartment buildings near my house.  At that point I decided to turn on the TV.  We didn't have cable back then.  A single mom trying to support herself and her child while going to school full time... I just didn't have the funds for cable.  But I did get 3 channels digitally broadcast: Sprout, CBS, and NBC.  It was on CBS when I turned it on.  Live coverage with our local team of news broadcasters.  They didn't have any images or very much information yet, but they had an alert on the TV with a picture of an emergency vehicle, lights flashing.  You know that image, the one about "Breaking News".  They were talking about how police and emergency crews had been called to the scene of a multiple shooting on campus.   

It was then that I looked down at my laptop and saw the email telling us that classes had been cancelled and not to come to campus.  I got a text message from my sister asking when I would arrive and I got a text message from my mom asking if I'd gotten to her house yet.  I turned off the TV and took my daughter outside to get into the car.  The sirens.  Just echoing off the buildings.  So many sirens.  

I got to my parent's house and saw my sister standing at the door.  Horror on her face.  They had been covering the shootings since shortly after the first shootings had taken place.  The hours between 10am and noon when the first press conference was held are a blur of news stories, mostly footage of news crews telling us what they see and saw.  There were unverifiable numbers of those killed.  Unconfirmed information about the location of the shootings.  And speculation by the media.  One news person said he saw people jumping out windows.  Another said he watched them carry bodies out of a building.  Another reported that the faces of many had been completely blown apart.  The reports were horrifying.  All the while, the sound of the sirens.

Over the course of the next few hours the names started coming.  As the names were released a few at a time each one was a shock.  Each one felt like we had lost part of our family.  Each loss felt like an attack on our community.  And then it hit home.  It was real.  I remember seeing the look on my sister's face when she learned that her friend from the Marching Virginians, Ryan "Stack" Clark, was killed in the first shooting.  A friend that she said could "light up a room without even trying".  I had to leave the room.  I couldn't keep listening to the list of names, seeing their pictures, hearing what the media could piece together about their lives.  It was all just too much.  

I remember the feeling of shock, confusion, and severe sadness when I saw my friend's dad, the very man that I had admired as a child in that classroom so many years ago and the man that had inspired me so greatly that it influenced my Bachelors degree program,  Dr. Loganathan, on the screen.  I brought a Peace Lily to her house that night and sat with her (as did many others who came to pay their respects).  It was all very surreal.  It didn't really feel real.  It couldn't have been real.  It must have all been a bad dream.

But then it the next morning it wasn't a dream.  It had happened.  32 of our friends and family had been taken from us.  We got in the car and left.  My mom, my sister, my daughter, and myself.  We all just left.  We drove the 11 hours to Saint Louis, MO to be with my other sister.  She had just had her first daughter 4 days before and we all needed the joy of a new baby to help us make it through the next weeks.  It was wonderful to get to hold that new life in our arms after so many lives had been taken.  She was like a little light in a tunnel of darkness.  



But then we had to go back and face a town and a community that had been ripped apart by sorrow.  Classes were canceled for the rest of the semester.  I had a few projects that I had to turn in, but there were no more classes to go to.  It was a good thing too, because I couldn't face going onto campus.  I had my mom drop off my school work.  I admire her strength.  I know she was facing the same emotions I was, but as my mother she knew I needed her to help me.  I don't think I could have turned in those last few projects without her help.  I have to give my step-dad a great deal of credit too.  He held all of us together. He stayed home and maintained the fort while we ran away to Saint Louis.  He knew when we needed a hug, when we needed silence, and when we wanted to talk.  Without them I don't think I could have made it through my last 2 semesters of school, and I certainly wouldn't have been able to heal without them in the months after I graduated.  

But I couldn't stay away for long because just a short month later my summer sessions started.  I was scheduled to take the first semester of my 5th year Thesis Studio that summer.  I had to take that class during that summer in order to graduate in the Fall.  I had to take the class.  Thankfully, my studio was on the edge of campus.  I'm not sure how it was possible, but I didn't set foot on campus that summer, or the semester after.  My course work allowed me to stay on the outer edge of campus and I found ways to avoid going anywhere near Norris Hall, or even within view of Norris Hall.

That summer I hit a turning point.  A turning point that would affect me for a long time, and to some extent still affects me today.  I took my daughter to the annual July 4th Parade.  It was always a good time and it was a nice event for the community to come together at.  The parade itself was good.  The floats were well put together.  The marching bands played well.  But then came the emergency vehicles.  Firetrucks, ambulances, and police cars representing each of the communities around ours.  It was a beautiful symbol of unity for all those first responders to be in our community together.  But the sirens.  EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Sirens.  So loud.  Echoing off buildings.  I had my first panic attack that day.  Sobbing beneath my sunglasses, feeling my heart pounding, unable to catch my breathe.  I relieved every moment of the shooting during those 5 minutes.  Every image flashed through my head.  Every thought and feeling I had that day reverberated inside me.  It was the first time I cried.

That moment sent me into a haze.  It was like it had all suddenly become so much realer.  I graduated in a haze.  I pushed myself through those last few months of school.  Working and not thinking.  I didn't feel any of the same joy from my work that I had felt before.  I had blocked out as much as I could so that I could finish.  My thesis was amazing.  My work was spectacular.  I just didn't FEEL the same way about the work as I had before.

I spent the next 7 months doing nothing.  Seriously.  I did nothing in the next 7 months.  I sat on my parent's sofa and watched TV.  I ate cookies and drank hot chocolate.  Of course I took care of my daughter, went to her preschool events, volunteered in her school classroom, and did all the things I needed to do to take care of her, but what I needed for myself was a break.  A break from the work.  A break from the campus.  A break from thinking and feeling.  7 months is a long time.  I wasn't depressed, although I'm sure a psychologist might have other opinions. I just needed a break.  And that break was the best thing I have ever done.  It allowed me to heal, all-be-it only partially, from the tragedy and shock.

Then in August 2008, I started Graduate School.  I was a duel Master's student with an assistantship in Landscape Architecture.  I was determined to feel the same passion for my work that I had felt before Seung-Hui Cho ripped it away from me.  I was determined to find that inspiration again.  And I did.  

That first Monday morning I walked onto campus, headed towards Burruss Hall (the building right next to Norris Hall), to my first morning as a Graduate Teaching Assistant.  I walked past Norris Hall and felt the panic begin to build up.  I took a deep breath and recited the names of the people we lost.  I told them in my mind that I was living this for them.  That I was going to find my passion again for them.  That I was going to help keep their memories alive by continuing to live by the inspiration that Dr. Loganathan had opened my eyes to so many years before.

I was helping a professor that I greatly admired (a man who even now in his retirement spends countless hours in the program, living what he does and loving what he lives) teach a Materials course.  I credit him for helping re-inspire me to love Landscape Architecture again.  I credit the whole department for helping me find my passion again.  Each of them, loving what they do just as much as Dr. Loganathan did, inspiring another generation to love what they do.  My second semester as a Graduate Teaching Assistant I helped teach the Hydrology course that had reminded me so much of Dr. Loganathan in my sophomore year.  It was hard, and I probably wasn't the best GTA that semester because of the internal struggle that being in that class again put me through.  It was hard doing something that reminded me so much of that day.  

I wont say that there were not bumps in the road.  I cried a lot that year.   I felt the panic build up inside me many times.  The first (and second and third and many more) times that I walked by Norris Hall.  The first time I walked across the Drill Field.  The many times I visited the Remembrance Memorial.  The one year anniversary.  But there was not a more emotional day for me than the first home football game.  I didn't go, I watched it on TV.  But when the band started to play Enter Sandman and the entire stadium (and everyone in the room I was in) started to jump, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of unity, the sense of community, the feeling that we were still one family of Hokies.  Seung-Hui Cho had taken part of our family away from us, but he had not taken our spirit, he had not taken their memories, he had not taken their influence from us.  All 32 of those brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers were still part of our family.  There were still with us.  And they have been everyday since then.  



My story doesn't compare to those that lived through the massacre.  It certainly can't compare to those that were slain that day.  It also can't compare to those who lost loved ones that day.  But it's fresh in my mind.  Every year I think about those events.  Every news of another shooting sends me back to that day.  Every year I mourn those lost.  Every first football game I cry through Enter Sandman when I feel their presence with us.   Every year I remember.   Every day I try to live with the passion that Dr. Loganation inspired me with so many years ago.  We will neVer forgeT.  We Are Virginia Tech.  

10 comments:

  1. What a compelling story. Thank you for sharing!

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  2. wow you are very passionate in writing! I love how you share your personal story thank you

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    1. Thank you so much! It's a subject I feel a lot of emotion about and I'm glad the "passion" came out in my writing.

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  3. I really loved this article Ashley. It made it real to me, living in New Zealand where guns are just not part of our lives, in a way that hearing about it on the news so long ago did not. So sorry about the loss of everyone, including your inspiration, Dr Loganation. As a teacher, I know I would be touched to know I had inspired someone so deeply in a way that lived on after me.

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    1. It's one of those things that really changes the way you interact with people who are dear to you. I am very conscious now to make sure to tell the people I care about and the people that inspire me that they are dear to me. I wish I had gotten to tell Dr. Loganathan how inspiring he was to me all those years ago.

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  4. I cannot believe that it has already been ten years. My father went to Virginia Tech; I went to nearby Radford, but am a Hokie at heart. God was looking out for you that is for sure! What a horrible, horrible event.

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    1. It's always nice to hear from a fellow Hokie (or a Highlander-Hokie as soooo many are, my sister and father included!). I was born and raised in Bburg, so it felt like not only an attack on my school, but as an attack on my home and my family. I am grateful to have such a wonderful community that really came together as a result of this. We helped each other heal.

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  5. What a wonderfully written post and you are so brave for sharing this. How crazy that I stumbled upon this, as my niece actually went to Sandy Hook Elementary. Thank goodness, like you, she was saved by what can only be an act of God. I don't know why some people are spared and some aren't, and I'll absolutely never understand the hatred in the hearts of those that commit these acts of violence. Truly saddening. Thank the lord you came out un-harmed though (physically). Will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers as you continue to recover from such a horrific event.

    God bless,
    Abby

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    1. Thank you, Abby. As someone from a community who had been through this, we all watched in horror as the events at Sandy Hook happened. As a mother, I found it completely terrifying. There was a time, a few years after the VT Massacre when my daughter's school was on lock-down because a man with a gun was seen outside one of the windows. Thankfully nothing happened and it turned out he had just walked across the property to get to another location near the school, but it instilled a fear inside me that I cannot even begin to describe. I cannot imagine how the parents and children at Sandy Hook feel and felt. My thoughts are with your family and your niece. It really does affect the rest of our life, and almost every aspect of it.

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