Living With an Asterisk
BLACKSBURG, VA.— Ryan McConnell says he'll be happy when all he hears about is football. The sports editor of the Collegiate Times, the Virginia Tech student newspaper, says the sport is the school's soul. "This time of year, when the leaves are turning, I refuse to leave campus for weeks because it's so exciting," says McConnell, looking out the third-floor newsroom window at students dodging raindrops on their way to class.
It's the second day of school at Tech, and the halls are full of students for the first time in months. The spring term ended abruptly last April, after Seung Hui Cho, a 23-year-old English major, used a pair of handguns to vent his rage at the world. He killed 33—including himself—and wounded more than two dozen more.
If the campus of Virginia Tech was hoping that a new semester would move the school beyond the bad news and back to normal, the first week wasn't exactly cooperative. A carbon monoxide leak in an off-campus apartment left two students critically sickened the day before classes began. The next day, one of the school's most distinguished football alumni, Michael Vick, agreed to plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges. (Tech officials say a banner honoring Vick's number will remain hoisted atop the school's stadium.)
Last Wednesday, three separate university committees investigating the massacre published their final reports. To the surprise of no one, they recommended improving the school's counseling center, tightening building security, and bettering campuswide alert systems. A separate and more comprehensive report, ordered by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, will be released this week. That report is expected to address not just the university's response but also the state's mental health system, gun laws, and police actions. In August, families of those murdered were offered a one-time payout of $180,000 each from a memorial fund established by the school. Those wounded were offered various lesser sums in addition to tuition waivers.
Monument. As difficult as it is for administrators and officials to resolve the details of the tragedy, the students and faculty face the challenge of trying to resume their lives with a semblance of normalcy. "The shooting shattered this community into millions of emotional shards and we tried to recover some of them," says journalism Prof. Roland Lazenby, who pressed his students into action from their locked-down classroom during the attack, reporting on their class website what little information they could gather. What followed that effort has turned into the book April 16th: Virginia Tech Remembers, an extensive oral history project, documenting events from the perspective of students, staff, and community members.
Of course, there were also memorials. The dedication of a modest monument—in the shadow of the main administrative building overlooking the Drillfield and not far from Norris Hall, site of most of the carnage—was one of them. There's a benefit concert, too, planned for early next month. It's all part of a public mourning process that is both difficult and necessary, says David Kessler, coauthor with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross of On Grief and Grieving. "Externalizing grief in these public events can be useful to keep things moving in the grieving process and not allow emotions to get stored up," he says.
It's a delicate balance between honoring the memory of a tragedy and moving on. But the legacy of the tragedy is tough to conquer. "No one wants that asterisk by their name when people find out that you went to Virginia Tech," says Neal Turnage, coauthor of April 16th. "Before [the shootings], football gave us lots of exposure, and people didn't want the football asterisk either. Before that, we were a farming school, and no one wanted to be seen as a bunch of hillbillies."
On September 1, the school's beloved football team will host East Carolina before a sold-out crowd at Lane Stadium and is slated for national broadcast on ESPN's College GameDay. The notoriously boisterous Tech fans, meanwhile, were asked to be on their best behavior. Specifically, they were asked to stop booing opponents, a Tech tradition, in recognition of competing teams' support of the Hokie community. "It's a nice gesture to ask them not to do that," says McConnell. "But part of me hopes that things haven't changed that much."
This story appears in the September 3, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.