Yesterday's events were shocking, but this morning we're starting to learn the names of the victims. Some of them were names we heard last night -- rumors on Fark, Myspace, or Wikipedia -- some of the names were new.
I woke this morning to the confirmation that Liviu Librescu was among the ones whose gunshots were fatal. Dr. Librescu and I met a few years ago, as fellow participants in a summer faculty workshop. He was already in his early 70's even then, and still here because it was clear how much he enjoyed his job. He was quiet, but had a wickedly sly sense of humor, and little patience for the bureaucratic red tape we had to put up with at the workshop. Once the workshop was over, I had little contact with him, except that occasionally I'd see him in the hallway and say hi.
That's how it is with a lot of the people at this community -- the odd semester-based schedule that academia lives by (but nobody else) often means that people are thrown together to see each other regularly for a few months at a time, to find that the following semester, their schedules separate them completely. There are so many people here, that "I knew one semester" but are now just nodding acquaintances.
I woke up this morning and started a load of laundry: I had worn my "nice outfit" to an off-campus event yesterday morning (cut short), which thankfully means that I wasn't on-campus during the massacre, but I decided that I wanted to wear it to the convocation today as well. After I started the washer, I made a trip to the grocery store.
At the entrance to the store, I met an old friend on the way out -- Bruce Reed, a retired professor in our department. He marvelled to me at how this event has caused old friends from years ago and far away to reach out; he'd gotten e-mails from people he hadn't seen in over a decade, checking that he was okay. I shared that I've gotten a lot of similar e-mails, one going all the way back to a high school acquaintance. Then again, Hurricane Katrina led me to re-establish contact with an old friend, so I've experienced the phenomenon from both sides.
Inside the store was an eerie experience -- the people there were quieter than usual; there wasn't the usual cell-phone chattering that I normally here there. Strangers made eye contact for a little longer than usual, which would normally feel creepy, but didn't today.
When I returned home, more names had been added to the list of those who had perished. Jocelyne Couture-Nowak and I had back-to-back classes in the same room last semester; she was finishing up her French III class as I was setting up for my differential equations class. I had taken 20 of the 24 hours my college required for a minor in French, not completing it because a hospitalization my senior year forced me to make some hard choices in order to complete my major and degree requirements on time. Still, I was surprised at how much French I remembered -- I was able to read most of the examples on the board, and she took an interest in my interest in French and really encouraged me to take a class as a refresher sometime. For the whole semester, we'd chat for a few minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, discovering a few oddball things, like how we were practically neighbors growing up -- but 800 miles away from Blacksburg!
I walked to Cassell Coliseum for the universty convocation -- the first time that I had been on the actual campus since this happened. I was first struck by how many news vans were parked on campus: the peripheral parking lots were a sea of white vans with satellite dishes mounted on them -- more than I've ever seen together at one time, and far more than we see at football games. There was a team from a Canadian station, which makes me think that one of the fallen students may have been from there.
Once I got past the sea of vans, I then saw the sea of police cars and security vehicles. From campus police to the BATF and SWAT teams, there were probably 30-50 uniformed officers on the path to the convocation. Though I had arrived a few minutes before 2:00, Cassell Coliseum was already full, and we were directed to other places where we could watch the convocation on campus cable, or if we wanted to trek to Lane Stadium, we could watch it on the jumbotron there. (Of course, this meant I wouldn't get a chance to hiss at Dubya directly. ;) )
Since we have a cable connection in our department, I decided to just walk back to my office and watch it there. I crossed the University Drillfield -- the same one that Mr. Cho crossed to get from Ambler-Johnston to Norris. There was a makeshift memorial on the Drillfield that someone had constructed there the night before, a wooden "VT", surrounded by flowers, with names signed on the VT in black marker.
There was still police tape surrounding Norris Hall; my office is in an adjacent building, though, and I wasn't blocked from entering my building. The building, like the drillfield was nearly empty -- no classes going on, no faculty in their offices. I had a voicemail on my phone from the day before -- an automated recording from campus security telling me to stay in my office, away from the windows. (Not that my office has windows.) Still thumbtacked to my door was a schedule of office and review times for an upcoming test that I had scheduled to give my students later this week. As a teacher, I'm still wrestling with how I'll spend the three class meetings we'll have left; it certainly seems unreasonable to just pick up where we left off last week and try to catch up for the missing time.
I'm also pondering how to follow up to an e-mail announcement about the test that I sent out first thing on Monday morning before I left the house -- which must have seemed inappropriate and crass to students who didn't wake up until later in the morning and saw it then.
Our tragedy isn't a hurricane: our homes are intact and dry, and we all have beds to sleep in tonight. Nor is it a war: we don't fear another 30 dead tomorrow. For most of us, things will return to normal in short order. But not today.
[UPDATE:] I wrote this diary from my office on campus, while the events were fresh in my memory. On the way home, I noticed the town had placed yellow ribbons around the lamp poles that weren't there earlier today. The independent theater downtown changed its marquee (which usually lists films and times) to just read "Our hearts are with you, VT." A number of other businesses had signs of support in their windows as well.
[UPDATE 2:] Got back from the candlelight vigil a while ago. Overheard a lot of students talking, but one of the themes that came up a lot among the students is "What if he had picked a different building?" The randomness of this violence means that any of us could have been the ones being mourned, if only the shooter had chosen a different location or time. The other theme that really hit hard is how much deeper this tragedy is for the students. While I've known a few of the deceased in a work-related capacity, I didn't date them, or stay up all night with them shooting the breeze, or go out drinking with them, or road trip with them, or anything like that. The way in which students connect to other students is far more emotional than the way that I've connected with my lost colleagues.