This past Friday marked the three year anniversary of a horrid day I will remember especially clearly for the rest of my life: Monday, April 16th, 2007. Clearly, I don’t have to explain why it was horrid or why I will remember it, and I don’t want to. But I would like to point out that our Virginia Tech Distinguished Professor Nikki Giovanni was right: “We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.” Three years later, we still mourn. We still don’t forget; we can’t and we won’t. And we embrace that mourning to better the world and better ourselves.
I loved Blacksburg for being a peaceful, easygoing place where drinks and laughter with friends were always just minutes away, where people of all ages and experiences could find serenity, and where a college experience had easily transitioned into a certifiable townie experience for me. So it was like everyone else that I was completely unprepared for that awful morning and the endless sound of sirens. Those sirens went on forever and I knew something was very wrong, but I had no idea how very wrong that something was. Today, the sound of so many sirens at once, and for so many minutes can still trigger that same feeling of dread in me.
There are no words to describe the utter heartbreak of seeing a school and a community that mean everything to you completely shattered. I could try to say it’s like the wind has been knocked out of your own small view of the world. Sometimes, that image is very literal: as I walked to the April 17th convocation where Professor Giovanni gave her now legendary speech, I was struck by the complete silence of the thousands and thousands of people streaming into the Coliseum and Lane Stadium. No sound, just quiet, hanging over all of us. Sound was useless, inappropriate; there were no words that could do justice. Yet Professor Giovanni inspired hope like none other when she used her glorious words to remind us that beauty can be rebuilt out of something that hideousness has attempted to destroy.
Now as much as we’d like it to be so, grief is not an ephemeral emotion by any means. As this anniversary approached, old Hokie friends of mine began to get back in touch. We mourned those that we lost and those that were hurt and tried to make sense of this grief, still sharp after three years. But there is no making sense of it, there’s only accepting it and leaning on one another. And it was clear that we all share the same desire: to make things better in the world, to honor our lost friends, clients, classmates, professors, and students just by living the best life that we can. We heard that ringing refrain once again: “We are Virginia Tech. We are the Hokies.” We do seek to become positive change in the world, as those 32 we lost sought to be, and that they can continue to be through all of us. And that’s what a Hokie really is.