Wednesday, April 18, 2007

OP-ED - A Black Day in Blue Ridge












What a wonderful letter penned by Lucinda Roy, a co-director of the creative writing program at Virginia Tech, is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Hotel Alleluia.”
A FEW months ago, when I returned from a trip to Sierra Leone, a country I lived in for years and one still reeling from the effects of a brutal civil war, I was filled with relief to be returning to a crime-free place like Blacksburg. As usual, I was welcomed by the Blue Ridge Mountains, and by the friends I’ve grown to love during my 22 years on the faculty at Virginia Tech.

It’s a quiet place. The town is full of turkeys — statues of our mascot, the Hokie Bird, painted in garish colors — as if being a Hokie were not a sports metaphor but a way of life. There’s a 5-foot-tall turkey just outside the bank; one near the police station; another in the parking lot of a Cleaner World, where I take my clothes. We have a sense of humor in Blacksburg — it’s part of our charm.

Blacksburg is a misnomer, of course. It’s the whitest town I’ve ever lived in. And although I’m not white, I’ve grown used to the fact that we can, for the most part, live in relative harmony — black and white, town and gown, young and old together. It’s a place that lulls you into believing you can predict what will happen next.

Apart from the gusty, frigid weather, the campus was enjoying another typical spring. Classes were winding down — graduation was fast closing in. Then, this month, we had two bomb threats on the campus. Still, people took it in stride: when classes in Torgersen Hall were canceled, the faculty grumbled and the students rejoiced. A $5,000 reward was offered if we could find the culprit. Back then, in the era before the slaughter, this seemed significant.

Monday morning, I was preparing for class at home; my husband, Larry, a computer engineer in the chemistry department, was at work on campus. I’d woken up with a sense of dread. I put it down to the visions I was having of the massacres in Sierra Leone, where I’d left behind people I cared about. Nervously, I kept flicking the TV on and off for news. In spite of my agitation, when I saw a map of Virginia on CNN with the name “Blacksburg” highlighted, I didn’t initially associate it with my Blacksburg.

The statistics that ran along the bottom of the CNN ticker were, at first, merciful: one death. My friends and I called each other and said reassuring, clichéd things. We knew how to handle this.

We’d had a similar scare at the beginning of the academic year when an escaped prisoner had been on the loose, armed. There were two fatalities in that event — a police officer and a security guard — twice what they were reporting today. Once again, we’d need to pull together as a community and grieve, but it seemed manageable.

When a local TV news reporter first uttered the phrase “more than 20,” I knew she had made an obscene error. This was Blacksburg, not Freetown. When the CNN ticker turned brutal, and the numbers tore across the bottom of the screen like bullets, faculty and staff called one another in disbelief. “Oh my God!” we said, struggling to find words that would guide us back to a recognizable place.

My husband returned a few minutes later. As if proximity were too risky an option, we spoke on separate phones to family and friends in nearby Culpeper and distant London. Whenever our paths crossed, we’d begin sentences that went nowhere. All over Blacksburg, all over Virginia, there were others like us, wandering around absentmindedly — trying to find what was lost.

Hours have passed, and now we know that there was — as a friend of mine put it when she called saying she was safe — “a massacre in that classroom.”

But Blacksburg isn’t a place of massacres — Blacksburg is my home in southwest Virginia. It’s boring — that’s why I like it. We are Virginia Tech, the fighting gobblers, the ones who wear the funny turkey hats and plant tasteless turkey sculptures all over town. We are not the stuff of massacres.

As I write this I am being flooded with e-mail from friends asking if I’m O.K. How do you answer them? What can you say when so many — so many of our young — were slaughtered?

I hit “Reply” — try to type the phrase “I am fine,” but it seems ridiculous to type that. I substitute “safe” for “fine” — another lie, for none of us is safe as long as there are angry young men who yearn to blast a hole in the world.

I think of the parents hurtling down to Blacksburg on Interstate 81, praying for miracles. My son is safe in Atlanta; their grief will dwarf mine. How do we begin to comprehend absolute loss?

A friend, another woman of color, says, “Everybody’s gonna need everybody”; and when another friend, a white man not prone to sentiment, tells me, “We’ll need to act like a family,” I want to believe them both. Those of us who have borne witness to suffering in the past will need to help those who cannot believe that healing is possible.

Two students called me today. They were recently accepted into our graduate creative writing program; I have never met them.

“This hasn’t changed my mind about coming,” the first, a young woman, assures me.

“I still plan to come and join you guys,” the other, a man, says in a confident, strong voice. I tell them we will welcome them. We will.

And when the parents — our bereft sisters and brothers — come to mourn their lost children, we will find a way to speak to one another over the din of despair.

A bomb exploded today in a classroom on a campus in a community I love. It wasn’t an empty threat after all.

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