“No one deserves a tragedy” or, the end of life as I knew it [#52weeks]

We’re going to have a little talk about Sunday, April 15, 2007… the calm before the storm that erupted six years ago when 32 students were murdered in cold blood on my college campus. We’re going to talk about it because it was the last day of my normal life– I didn’t know it then– and it is the last time I remember life without the anxiety, the heartbreak, the loss, the panic, the PTSD and everything else I’ve had to work so hard to overcome since that terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

We’re going to talk about it because it was Reema’s birthday, and because Reema was a classmate in an Urban Affairs and Planning Course that I took during my junior year to fufill some Core Curriculum requirements towards graduation. We were in the same 10:10 class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and she was one of the younger students in the French Language and Literature program at Virginia Tech. In addition to being a gorgeous young lady of Lebanese descent, she was smart, she was passionate about dance, and she was incredibly excited about spending her summer working in France.

There’s not very much that can be said about the day itself, except that it was cold and rainy, and that a friend of mine driving through town had stopped in for a late lunch at my favorite restaurant, the Cellar. That Sunday was the rain date for the International Street Festival held by that the Council for International Student Organizations that had taken place for some 22 years, an event that had to be called for rain and moved indoors because of unseasonable weather. Having had fond memories of every other International Street Fair weekend being sunny and beautiful, I was upset that the hours I had spent making Mousse au Chocolat and crepes with others for the French Club fundraiser may have been spent in vain. Despite the crappy weather (so cold! so windy!), though, turnout seemed to hold and the French Club and the rest of the participating organizations were packed into the Commonwealth Ballroom in Squires Center. I was late the event, as usual, but I made it just in time to Reema, my classmate, in the middle of a troupe of Lebanase dancers on stage in traditional costume, doing what she loved the most.

Just days later, I realized that Reema’s parents were there too when she was dancing on stage. They had driven four hours from Northern Virginia to see her dance and to celebrate her birthday that weekend. Through my friends, I found out that her parents were sure to let her know that they loved her very much and that they were very proud of her before driving back home.

They didn’t know it then– and I didn’t know it when I saw her, either– but that day, her birthday, was the last time that any of us would see her alive. The next morning, not even 18 hours later, she was murdered with eleven of her classmates on second floor of Norris Hall in Madame Couture-Nowak’s French class. In total, 30 people lost their lives that morning for no reason other than that they were in the right place– in class, as they should have been– at the wrong time.

After the deaths of so many of my classmates that day, I’ve never looked at an empty seat in a classroom the same way again.

When I think about what happened the next day, my heart breaks every time that my mind wanders to her parents and begins to imagine how they must have felt the next morning when they found out that their daughter had been murdered just hours after they had last seen her. They were so lucky to have had that last day together– so fortunate to have been able to say to their daughter on what was the last day of her life that they were so proud of her and they loved her very much– but so, so unfortunate to have had her taken away from them in such a horrible, horrible way.

On this day, the sixth anniversary of the last “normal” day of my life, I can’t help but think that we could have prevented the parents in every other shooting rampage that has taken place since of the unbearable cruelty and pain of outliving their children. In a convocation speech made just two days after our most horrible loss, poet Nikki DiGiovanni reminded us in her speech that “no one deserves a tragedy.”

We will prevail, she said, and we have. Never forget, she said, and we haven’t forgotten. No one deserves a tragedy, she said, and yet they still happen with frightening regularity.Why, people, why? Why aren’t we doing everything in our power to keep this from happening again?


Across Six Aprils [#52weeks]

I know it is coming, because I can feel it inching closer and closer with every fiber of my being.

“It,” in this case, is the anniversary of the worst day of my life. That day, April 16th, 2007, was a cold and windy Monday. In the early hours of the morning, a gunman shot a student and an RA in West Ambler Johnson. After a brisk walk downtown, where he stopped at the post office to mail a videotape to NBC, the perpetrator of the early morning shooting headed to Norris Hall. There, he chained the doors to the building and, around 9:47am, he began a shooting rampage that lasted for only a few minutes. After taking the lives of 32 students and faculty at my university, the gunman turned the gun on himself and took his own life.

I’ve thought the shooting every day since it happened, for 2, 188 days to be exact. I’ve had time to think about my classmates who died, about the girl I had known since we were five years old in Sunday School at the church down the street from my Grandaddy’s house, about the first responders who had to see the bloodshed and carnage firsthand. I’ve had 2,188 days to grasp what has happened.

The rest of the country, specifically those in charge of it, has had that long to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. And yet…

When I look at the state of things, I’m disgusted because I feel like our loss wasn’t big enough to change things, despite it being the biggest in US history. At times, it feels like the deaths of my classmates were in vain, that any good that could have come out of them never met its full potential, that the suffering and the pain that we’ve all endured weren’t big enough or important enough to ensure that it could never, ever happen again. On average, a mass shooting happens every four months in the United States. How many of those could have been avoided if people took the opportunity six years ago to make sure that something similar could never ever happen again, not just in an educational setting, but anywhere else in our country?

Sure, a commission was formed to answer the questions surrounding the shooting but the report they completed was riddled with factual errors. The $10 million spent in the aftermath of the shootings went to on-campus security measures to ensure that it could never happen there again… but that was for one campus, not all of them. Lots and lots of money was thrown around to cure the ills that were brought about by the shootings (not enough, though, because it was a six month wait to get an appointment with a therapist), but how did writing some laws and installing locks on doors help? Where were the widespread preventative efforts to make sure this didn’t, couldn’t happen again? What does it say about us that we let what happened in the parking lot of a Safeway in Tuscon, AZ., what happened in Aurora, CO, and what happened to those young, innocent children in Sandy Hook, CT come to pass, when surely other courses of action could have been pursued?

It has been six years, and another body of students will spend their lives fighting PTSD, anxiety, and all that comes with a school shooting. More parents, this time of younger, more impressionable little persons will grapple for answers and will search for answers that just don’t come. More communities have been and will be torn apart until something is done.

Ours was the biggest mass shooting in history, and for six Aprils I’ve feared the moment that I turn on the TV to find that another similar tragedy will have overtaken ours, that more people on a larger scale will so intimately know that through which we’ve worked so hard to prevail. We need more than partisan discourse and a few meager laws to change things, we need decisive actions that impart huge obstacles to those attempting to procure the weapons through which such terrible, horrible things can be done. We need to do everything in our power to make swift and strong decisions on gun control and on supporting mental healthcare. We need to do it now, before the other shoe drops and something worse that what we’ve already seen happens. Anything less would be dishonoring the lives of all that we’ve lost to these massacres, absolute folly for a society that is supposed to value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.