There is something about the word ‘gunman’ that makes any human shudder, but there’s something about combining that word with two others; ‘on campus’ that makes any Hokie’s stomach drop and heart skip a beat... its the same thing that gives you an odd sense of clarity when you feel as though you might be in trouble… that makes every voice an offender, every knock on the door a threat, every text message twice as important, and every breath much more intentional. There is something about being stormed by a SWAT team that solicits, involuntarily, a new level of unparalleled, and unprecedented fear… Welcome to my Thursday, and the Thursday of many other fearful Hokies last week.
I was on campus for the shooting. I was sheltered, with several other students and faculty members, for a significant time, in the office of Marching Band Director, David McKee. We were shaken by the alert, but hoping for a false alarm. When it became common knowledge that at least one person was dead, it became real and way too close to home. Up on the wall behind Dave’s desk is a picture of Ryan “Stack” Clark, a former Marching Virginian, young, vibrant soul, and the first victim in the April 16th massacre. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the room glancing at his picture and thinking to myself, “not again.”
Phones started going off with more intensity as it became obvious that this was anything but a false alarm. One thing I found to be very profound in a moment of crisis: You find out who your friends and family are… real quick. Someone beat on the door of the office, and in seconds Dave had thrown himself in front of it demanding to know who it was and not opening it until he knew it was safe: it was clear that it wasn’t his first rodeo. At that moment, for the entire duration of that tragic event, still now, and forever, that man is/was a hero.
We got moved to the 2nd floor of Squires where we met everyone else who was in the building, realizing quickly that we were not alone, but more importantly, that this was not a test. There had been reports of alleged gunshots outside of our building and instantly we were surrounded by people with guns… The SWAT team herded us all into a larger auditorium. “Go, go, go!” No questions were asked as we did what we were told, tears pouring down the faces of many, myself included. I have been afraid of a lot of things in my twenty-one years on this earth, and while there was never a moment that I genuinely felt unsafe throughout this ordeal, I was absolutely terrified for its entirety. I knew no one was getting through that SWAT team, it was the fact that we were in a position where we needed to be surrounded by them that scared me.
With communication limited, every piece of information and every outgoing message was crucial. I was scanning the news for updates on my computer when I came across a quote from a CNN reporter, “I wonder if Virginia Tech has tracking shooters down to a fine science.” My initial reaction: WE’RE STILL HERE. We’re still on lockdown and THAT’S what you’re going to contribute?!? My second: rot in hell. Third: What kind of pathetic, despicably heartless, shallow human being would say something like that? And right there, still surrounded by the SWAT team, still surrounded by friends and faculty desperately trying to let their loved ones know they’re okay, still, with no news on the status of the gunman and reports of shots all around campus, still terrified, in that very moment, began the art of prevailing.
It doesn’t take much to get a Hokie to defend Virginia Tech, and it takes even less in the midst of a crisis. Instead of Facebook feed’s just reading “Not again.” and “What is it about that campus.” or “VT.. and the bullets spray again.” I began to see posts reading “We will prevail.” and “Hokies united.” or “Praying for VT and the media personnel who misrepresent it.” I was one of them. I couldn’t fathom the kind of human being who could think otherwise...
-->Sitting in what many would consider the wrong place at the wrong time, I found myself reflecting on being in the right place at the right time. I thought about how lucky I was to have spent an entire semester with the woman, my teacher, Nikki Giovanni, who told us almost four and a half years ago what we know now: “We are Virginia Tech…We will prevail.” I knew the Hokie Nation was a real entity, but I became more than aware of its size, strength, and ability to endure while sitting in that room surrounded by nothing but fear and uncertainty.
Those are the moments that define us… Not the moment where the trigger was pulled, but the nanosecond after, when thousands of people unite as one. Its the strangers becoming friends, friends becoming family, and family becoming your life support that define us in that moment. That is who we are, and that is what we did. Teachers became our legal guardians, parents if you will. I know one of mine did. I was in constant contact with one of my former teachers, Jane Vance, who picked me up the second the lockdown was lifted, taking me away from campus, and giving me the chance to release the breath I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding for hours. No stranger to tragedy, this was all too familiar territory for her as well… but we are Virginia Tech, and we take care of each other.
I had the honor and privilege of meeting some very special people in my evening away from campus whose story will have to be one for another day, but I can tell you that in the midst of their own tragedy, they opened their home to ours. They welcomed us, even I, who was a stranger, with open arms and provided a refuge from the day’s events… a shelter from the storm. I wish I could explain to you the magnitude of this experience. They are Virginia Tech, and that is what they do for one another.
We are Virginia Tech, and now more than ever, we must remember who we are. We are more than a crime scene. We are more than a skewed, aired in bad taste news story. We are more than a gunman. We are a school, we are a community, we are a nation... and above any and all things, we are a family and we will always, always prevail. You can't change that, I can't change that, and neither can anyone with a gun.. We ARE Virginia Tech, and we will find the triumph in this tragedy.
So to the reporter who says we are a “snake-bitten campus, and a breeding ground for violence” I rebuke you. To the one who asks if we have “tracking a shooter down to a fine science” how dare you. To the ones who say we’re nothing more than “the campus were you’re most likely to get shot.” That tells me you’ve never stepped foot into Blacksburg… I am sad that you clearly have no one close enough to you to realize that family extends well beyond the blood that binds it. To Westboro Baptist Church, you are despicable and make me absolutely sick to my stomach... we are better than you, and we'll prove it. Not only will you be greeted by thousands of Hokies prepared to shelter the loved ones of fallen Officer Crouse, you’ll be driven out of town by the sheer magnitude of our unity. We are Virginia Tech, you mess with one, you get us all. Bring it on…I dare you. To News Channel 7 who refuses to cover Westboro’s picketing, I salute you and commend your lack of publicizing these imbeciles. But to the Hokie Nation, I thank you. I thank you for standing by us, for your outpouring of prayers, and for your stoic support in the face of ridicule, adversity, and tragedy.
Say what you want about Virginia Tech, but this says it all without saying a word.
We ARE Virginia Tech, and THIS is how we PREVAIL.
Hokie Pride forever and always, always and forever.