On the morning of April 16, 2007 a disturbed Virginia Tech student walked into a dormitory and a classroom building on campus with weapons. He killed 32 students and faculty members, most of them within a 15-minute time frame.
At the time, I was living in Finland and teaching at a university there. I had memories of Virginia Tech as a boy, having grown up in the same general area where the school is located. I knew of its football team, and of an engineering professor there who taught scientific writing, which I also teach. Now, like everyone else in the world, I knew of Virginia Tech as a place of a terrible massacre.
In my intercultural communication class that week, we discussed cultural symbols. As an experiment, I put the Virginia Tech logo up on the screen in our classroom and asked them if they knew what it stood for. They did.
Last autum I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia to teach at Virginia Tech. I have grown to understand a little of the impact of the shootings on our community and the university in the months I have been here. It probably is the most momentous event to ever have occurred at Virginia Tech.
Since I intend to spend the rest of my days around here if possible, I thought it would be important for me to share in the Remembrance Day activities that took place on April 16. So I planned to attend a candlelight vigil on campus at sunset.
The ceremony was to begin at 7:30 p.m., and I arrived about an hour before at the site. The flags of America and Virginia stood at half mast before Burruss Hall, which sits overlooking the Drillfield, the location of the vigil.
When I got there, the Drillfield looked like any university campus playgr0und. Students were lounging in the evening sun, or playing soccer. There were signs of the forthcoming event (cops on bicycles, for example), but few people were around.
In front of Burruss stood a lectern with microphones. In front of that was the memorial to the deceased students. It consisted of a single lighted candle and 32 “Hokie Stones” with the names of each of them. Off to the side was a “Survivor Bench”, dedicated to those who were injured.
A small number of small chairs were placed in front of the memorial, seating obviously for family of the dead. The area was roped off, but it was easy to stand there and get a close up view of the proceedings.
As the hour before the ceremony passed, the crowd grew larger and larger. Streams of students clad in marooon and orange, the colors of VT, began to flow from across the Drillfield. I asked one of the students who was holding a candle where to get one. She pointed across the Drillfield. So I followed her direction and crossed to a place where some students were handing them out.
Members of the Corp of Cadets began to surround the memorial, standing at a respectful attention. By the time the ceremony started, I was up against the rope in front of the lectern, surrounded by a crowd.
President Charles Steger, who I remembered from media coverage in 2007, opened the ceremony with a speech. His theme was light overcoming darkness. Steger was followed by a student, who I took to be the student government president. He also spoke of overcoming.
Standing on steps in front of Burruss were friends, survivors and family members. They each lit a candle from the commemorative light and walked to one the Hokie Stones. As they did this, a speaker read a short biography of that particular student, highlighting their accomplishments, interests and character. The sense of loss was poignant as their lives and personalities were described. These people were someone’s child, sibling, lover or friend.
The song “Fields of Gold “was sung. I had never heard this song before, but it was quite beautiful, and appropriate. It was written by Sting and is a metaphor for love.
Those with lit candles began to approach the crowd and pass on the fire. By this time it was dark. The light began to flow across the crowd as if a swarm of what we called “lightning bugs” when I was a kid were about.
As the ceremony drew to a close, someone began to sing “Amazing Grace”, and some of the crowd sang along. Then the crowd began to chant, “Let’s Go Hokies” in unison.
It was a moving event. I was proud of the school and the students for putting it on. It was one of the most tasteful ceremonies I have ever attended. I have never been in such a well-behaved large crowd. They were silent much of the ceremony and even refrained from taking photos. Most of the people in the crowd were Virginia Tech students. They were a testament to their generation.
To me, the significance of the ceremony is that those of us who are still here owe it to the deceased to live meaningful lives. One never knows when their life will be suddenly ended.
The candlelight vigil and President Steger’s speech were reminiscent of the message from President George H.W. Bush about Americans being a “thousand points of light”. As I looked out on the vigil, it occurred to me that this is what we should be. We should be lights in our world and overcome the kind of evil perpetrated on the Virginia Tech campus on April 16, 2007.
If I were a prospective student at VT, I’d become a Hokie in a heartbeat. The Hokies are a special group of folks. They are an embodiment of their motto: “Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). The people of Virginia Tech have taken a horrible tragedy that could have shattered them and used it to unify their community. Out of this unity they are communicating a message: we are here to contribute to the welfare of others.