The Hokie Nation Remembers - and Begins Again

10 years ago

My godson moved into his freshman dorm at Virginia Tech this weekend. He goes with the very same love, support and pride that accompanies thousands of young people who are off to college this month. It just so happens, though, that he arrived in Blacksburg, Virginia, on the same weekend that the University dedicated a memorial, including 32 "Hokie Stones" for each student killed in last April's mass shooting that took 32 young lives, plus the self-inflicted death of the shooter.


Mariella Lurch, sister of slain Virginia Tech student Daniel Alejandro Prez Cueva, pauses at his memorial stone after the dedication of the memorial for the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting in Blacksburg, Va., Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007. More than 10,000 people gathered on the main campus lawn Sunday as Virginia Tech dedicated 32 memorial stones for those killed by a student in a mass shooting on campus last April. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Grief tends to bind people together. I read a quote once that I wish I could repeat verbatim, much less attribute. It began exactly as "Pain cracks us open and is totally revealing," and goes on to say that that is when we discover what really matters, and what we will never forget. This explains the success of support groups, where people find solace in shared experience, and in survivor accounts of natural disasters and acts of violence. Who can understand but those who have been there with us, or, in the case of the horrifying loss at VT, those who were watching along and feeling even a small percentage of the community's pain.

Following the shooting, countless memorial offerings arrived in Blacksburg from around the world. The Washington Post ran a story this week on what is being done to preserve this evidence of support from the human community.

"I think there was an immediate recognition that this was important," said Eileen Hitchingham, the university's librarian. "The importance is not only what came in, but you have to picture 10 years out. What is it? It's a research project. How do people mourn, how do they come together?"...

One of her favorite items is a card from a bank, which she is including in her annual report. It is a picture of basketball shorts that says: "We hope you will bounce back and let us be your sixth man." Hitchingham said she doesn't really follow sports, but she liked that image of someone wanting to jump in and help.

"That really is the analogy that [captured what] I felt most people were trying to do," she said. It's like comfort food after a funeral. "You take the casserole over to the family, and I think people couldn't do that, but they looked to do something as close, as equivalent as they could."

Karen Mallette blogs at The Conversation. Her son Tommy died ten years ago .She responded to the Post's article about archiving grief.

The archivists from the Library of Congress noted in the WP article that VT should “try to think who in a 100 years will want to know. . .”

My answer turned out to be photography - from a camera, and a scanner. Through the ‘wonders of modern technology’, I converted 20 years of memories into a single 700MB CD. It packed much better on the London-bound pallets and softened the burden in my heart. I can look at Tommy’s handwriting whenever the mood dictates.

I don’t think, however, that archiving tokens of support or erecting monuments really pays honor to the process of grief or the ones we grieve....

Walking around the town’s WW1 monument to their “glorious dead” Irwin comments it is “not lest we forget, but lest we remember. There is no better way of forgetting something than by comemorating it.” ...

That’s what so scary to me about cataloging grief, including my own. Once it is in a box, once it is captured, once it has context, we begin the forgetting.

Virginia Tech's Center for Digital Discourse and Culture created the April 16 Archive .

The April 16 Archive uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and present the stories and digital record of the Virginia Tech tragedy of April 16, 2007. The archive is hosted on the Virginia Tech campus, and is curated by students, faculty, and staff. We welcome contributions from the greater Virginia Tech community and anyone who wants to share and reflect on these events. We are all Virginia Tech...

This project contributes to the ongoing efforts of historians and archivists to preserve the record of this event by collecting first-hand accounts, on-scene images, blog postings, and podcasts. It is our sincere hope that this site can contribute to a collective process of healing, especially as those affected by this tragedy tell their stories in their own words. The April 16 Archive is part of ongoing efforts to use the Internet to preserve the past through "digital memory banks," with these records accessible to a wide audience for generations to come.

The Archive includes many links to blogs and websites that tell quite clearly in words and pictures what it is like to mourning and healing in a way that only the Internet has made possible.

Virginia Tech alum and craft blogger Laurel of Stampin' With Laurel made some stamps to commemorate and deal with her own feelings about the shootings.

And here I am. Virginia Tech graduate of 1998. Daggum. 10 whole years ago. I love that school, and every day I was there. I love the people I met, the way I could ride my bike across campus like a banshee, how I had no fear to take a nap right there on the quad.

So, sure - stamping has been my therapy. Whether or not it's actually cheaper ... that's still up for debate. But there's no other way for me. I just "stamp it all out."

Kim Peterson is a photojournalist for the Tech newspaper, and felt her status as a part of the Virginia Tech family, and a witness to the suffering of other family members, quite keenly today. She was the only photographer allowed in the tent. Her pictures tell the story better than I can, as do her words .

Today, I found myself closer to the families than any other photographer. I couldn't help but cry as everyone around me began to break down with the sorrow only known by those who have lost someone dear to them. I was the only photographer in the tent. Let me tell ya, it sure is a hell of a lot harder to take pictures when you're crying. Mind you, I didn't ball or even cry that hard. The tragedy is something much larger than I could know. However, it is an unbelievable tragedy. No one could refute that. When you see thirty-two stones representing thirty-two calously lost lives, there's nothing more you can do but mourn. And when you're surrounded by universal grief, there's nothing you can do but cry.

The archive allows Leslie Sherman's high school history teacher, James Percoco's remembrance of her to live on.

Leslie was one of those rare human beings who "got it," and understood what life was about. Many people live well into old age and never "get it." To have been a part of Leslie's life and journey is a humbling experience. Her internal radiance was brilliant and reaffirms what it means to live devoted to other people. She was a gift to all who knew her. I count her among the many blessings of my life.

Leslie always took to heart and then put into action words of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. In his 1967 Christmas Sermon, called "The Drum Major Instinct," he called for people to step up to the plate and serve others. Leslie consistently stepped up to the plate and every time hit a grand slam. She was a Drum Major For Life! Godspeed, Leslie, Godspeed! Thanks for being a teacher, too.

Another teacher, Ronald Maggiano, said,

...Any number of "tribute" pages can be found where people have posted messages and shared their thoughts. In Leslie's case, these have included The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN,, and others. A Google search on "Leslie Sherman" reveals an almost endless variety of websites and postings about Leslie including photos and biographical material as well as remembrances and condolences to the family. Many of these messages are from people who did not know Leslie or any of the other victims. Yet, people somehow have gained a sense of connectedness by expressing their thoughts and emotions in this new virtual "public square." I think the impact of this kind of digital gathering place is only now being recognized as an important new characteristic of our modern culture. It has helped me, and perhaps many others, to comprehend the incomprehensible loss of Leslie's life.

The University's photographs of the memorial celebration are here.

Kathy in Blacksburg on finds the political in the personal, (and vice versa?), saying,

I too wonder, what if...What if we could know the other faces of the Iraq war? What if all Americans finally consciously thought about the everyday losses, not just of American lives, but also countless more innocent Iraqi men, women--many children and the elderly. Do we see them as having the same potential as our own lost youths? Do we see the elder victims as our parents and grandparents?

The politics of division which strikes at the heart of America, also divides us against the rest of the world. But they are us. They are not "collateral losses," "collateral damage." What if, as the world embraced Virginia Tech, we "embraced" those who have lost loved ones? Would we--all of us, Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Independents--come together to bring this war to an end? I think we would.Closer to home, what if, we really learned from the Virginia Tech shooting and the intimate coverage of its victims afterward, to really see and respect those we encounter. What if we saw friends' and family members' dreams, hopes and aspirations now, not when they die? How do we honor and support those in our communities, for possibilities untapped --all while they are alive?

What if there were a way to capture the essence of a person NOW, not at a funeral, when we hear the moving testimonials of their late lives? Instead, what if we worked on mental eulogies of living others, not in some maudlin dark way, but rather to savor them and who they are? One week could really make a difference. Just one week. The light we'd reflect could truly "light" the world.

I saw the essence of my godson on a beach this July, when we talked about Tech and his excitement about going. I think he knows that his true education begins this week. He wants to be where he is, and I hope his experience is deepened by the stories he hears - and that he knows in life that he is as valued as any person can be. It is surely true that loss heightens awareness, or hopefully, as Kathy points out, just the knowledge that it's possible, but it shouldn't just be that. It's his smile I value, his intelligence, and his compassion. We'd have nothing to remember - nothing to lose - if what we experienced through the people in our lives didn't make such a difference in the first place.

I'll write him an e-mail this week. I'll tell him to go to class, tell him to be careful, get his address so I can send him twenty bucks - but I'll tell him more than anything to have a good time and savor this moment in his life. I want him to walk by those memorial stones and remember, but I want him to do what the people behind the names engraved on them were doing in the first place - to live.

Laurie White blogs at LaurieWrites

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