I'm on the train home after spending two days in a beautiful place, with great people who are going through something so sickening and shattering that it almost defies imagination.
I'm tired and kind of numb, but fatigue and numbness will fade for me, likely not so much, at least not soon, for the kids of Hokie Nation. Virginia Tech is a big school, 25,000 plus — and many of the students did not personally know any of the victims of Cho Seung-Hui's tsunami of carnage. But all of them surely felt violated, how could they not? What's the most used, perhaps overused word, since September of 2001? Terror. Terrorism. Well if this doesn't qualify, I don't know what does.
So the last thing I wanted, absolutely, was to contribute in any way to VT's violation. We got into Roanoke late Monday night, 2:30 on Tuesday morning, after a two-hour train ride and then a four-and-a-half-hour drive south in fierce nighttime winds — sadly appropriate for the real life horror movie that had been visited upon that part of the state earlier in the day. We were up early and on the Blacksburg campus by 8 a.m. And while I was expecting a media circus — not like this, easily 50 satellite trucks surrounding the alumni center-turned-media center, sort of a high-tech county fair.
There's Matt Lauer and the 20-person "Today" crew live in a prime location. Wolf Blitzer in the men's room. Terry Moran of ABC checking out NBC's exclusive on the killer's "multimedia manifesto." Anderson Cooper at the front desk of the hotel where our production office was stationed. Paula Zahn next to my producer on the plane ride home. They were all there, dispatched as the enormity of this tragedy became apparent on Monday. As was I.
We've never tried to — or been especially interested in — competing with the big boys of hard news when it comes to a breaking story of these proportions. What we do try to do is to bring our own take to the narrative — to tell stories that other people don't, in ways that they wouldn't. Hopefully we were able to do that in our short time at Virginia Tech. Hopefully we did the story justice. But more importantly, to me at least, is that we respected these kids. We were in their home, guests in their home, a house that had already been violated beyond belief. Proceed with caution and consideration. Do that and you're usually OK.
That's how we met Justin, a VT student who had just gotten his first-ever tattoo, a black-and-maroon ribbon of remembrance with the inscription "We are Virginia Tech" — inspired by professor Nikki Giovanni's convocation address a day earlier. Justin had always wanted to get some ink, but never knew just what to get. On Monday, he knew.
I think for a lot of people at VT this week covering this story, there was a moment that it "hit you." You get there and you are so in the moment, so preoccupied with getting stories shot, getting a script written, getting it on the air that it doesn't sink in. It happened for me when we were hanging out with Bryce Carter, the freshman blogger who began making his posts about the shooting and its aftermath public, and he took us to his dorm. This is a freshman guys' dorm, just a few weeks before the end of their first crazy year of freedom away from home — and you could hear a pin drop. Guys walking around quietly going about the business of getting ready to go attend a convocation service in memory of 32 of their peers and professors who had been gunned down. How f---ed up is that? Hopefully they were alright with me being there. I felt kind of like an intruder.
I know that plenty of people did appreciate us being there, 'cause they came over and said so. I will always remember the girl who came over to me at the memorial of candles and flowers and condolence boards and 32 Hokie stones set up on the Drillfield — only yards from Norris Hall where the majority of the shooting took place. (And don't think the weird coincidence of that building name hasn't been sitting with me all week.) Anyway, this girl whose name I don't know just wanted to thank us for being there, said that it "meant a lot". We were honored to. Even Ayden and Chris — the guys at the campus radio station, WUVT, who had a "Die, MTV, Die" bumper sticker on the studio glass — were cool with us.
There are probably 25,000 different reactions across the VT campus to the surreal events of this week. I saw kids walking in a daze, I saw Sway's interview with this brokenhearted girl Heidi, who just lost it, and I saw our student PA for a day, Tanner, saying he was doing alright and that working with us had actually helped get his mind off of the insanity. Classes are supposed to resume on Monday (see " 'Things Will Get Back To Normal': What's Next For VT Students"). It will be a long time till things are "normal" no doubt — but it will happen.
I live in downtown, hipster, East Village New York — where, honestly, the default attitude when it comes to things like school spirit is more likely a sneer than a cheer. Where notions like "Hokie Pride" are often treated as, well, hokey.
I went to New York University — about as urban and anti-traditional a big school as you can find in America.
And yet I was touched, and moved and, no sh--, inspired by what I saw this week from Hokie Nation. They kept saying what a special place VT was, a place of openness and tolerance and the last place you would ever think something like this would happen. Their spirit and resilience and solidarity is something they can all be proud of. And what made me proud — there, amid the condolences on the Virginia Tech campus, was a hand written poster, in purple ink, reading "NYU stands with you."
God bless you Hokies, and good luck.
Read "Students From Across U.S. Respond To Shootings: 'It Is Beyond Unsettling' ", "On Virginia Tech Campus: 'I Can't Believe This Happened Here' ", "Gunshots 'Sounded Like A Hammer': Virginia Tech Students Speak About Shootings" and " 'People Are Missing': VT Student Reflects On Loss Of Friend" for firsthand accounts from the Virginia Tech campus and additional student reactions.
Go to "Virginia Tech Students Reach Out To One Another" and "Virtual Memorial, MySpace Pages Help VT Mourners Cope Online" to find out how students are coping with the tragedy.
And read " 'The Scariest Moment Of My Life': A Timeline Of VT Shootings" for a timeline of the tragedy.