Monday, April 23, 2007

Forever a Hokie

I have spent the last week sorting through the complicated feelings I have about the masscre at Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech holds a special place in my heart as the place where I earned my undergraduate degree in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Biobusiness in 1997. Virginia Tech is the place where I learned to accept myself as a gay man and be OK with that. It is a place where I formed many dear friendships that I cherish to this day. I can hardly believe that it will be 10 years since I graduated next month!

I first heard about the shootings while getting ready to leave on a business trip to Copenhagen and Croatia (where I am now). Like most people, I think my first reaction was shock. It is hard to convey just how idyllic a place Virginia Tech is to people who have not been there. Nestled in the New River Valley of southwest Virginia, Virginia Tech is an oasis, a true academic refuge. When school is not in session, the town of Blacksburg has only 10,000 residents, most of whom are connected to VT in some way. When school is in session, the population surges to nearly 40,000. In October of each year, the fall leaves hit their peak. Virginia Tech, surrounded by the Appalachian mountains, is ablaze in a glory of colors. There is a bumper sticker I remember that said, "God is a Hokie - Otherwise Why Do the Leaves All Turn Orange and Maroon in the Fall?" I was never a "mountain person" when I came to Virginia Tech, but I left one.

The buildings are all built with material from Virginia Tech's limestone quarry, and we call it Hokiestone. In the 1980s, the Board of Visitors (it's a Virginia thing....think Board of Directors or Regents) decreed that every building at Virginia Tech must have Hokiestone on its exterior. The architecture is American Gothic, and the Hokiestone gives an ancient feel to a campus that is "only" 135 years old. You can walk everywhere; indeed, parking is such a hassle that I never once contemplated moving off campus, and I only used my car to travel to Roanoke (the only gay bar for 100 miles around was there) or to go home. Otherwise, I did not need it.

So, with these cherished memories in mind, I could not contemplate the horror that visited the campus last Monday. It was incompatible with what I knew of my beloved VT. I called my friend Yonsenia, who is a professor of Art at VT, and she was fine. She does not have class on Monday, so she was not campus. She knew more information than the news was releasing, but it was a lot of rumor. She said that she heard some "Asian dude" had done the shooting.

Honestly, that made some sense to me. Virginia Tech's premier program is engineering. The sciences, the business school, and the hotel/restaurant management school are all excellent, but it is the engineering program that is world-famous. One startling fact I discovered when I went to VT was that there were more Asians on campus than African Americans. Even coming from Kentucky, I felt disoriented by the lack of black students and explosion of Asian students. The Engineering program attracts most of these Asian students, as anyone who has endured Intro to Calculus classes at VT can attest. I served on the Judicial Council as a student, and part of that was investigating charges of cheating as well as serving on student-run juries. There were several cases that came before me during my 3 years on the panel with Asian students who were in the engineering program to please their parents and were failing. The end result of cheating exposed people at their most desperate. So I figured that if an Asian was the shooter, it had to be an engineering student who had snapped under the pressure of upcoming finals. Especially knowing that Norris Hall was always known as the "Civil Engineering building" when I was a student.

That's what I get for following stereotypes! While the shooter was Asian, he was an ENGLISH major. And he was apparently a psychotic person with no real grip on reality. I took a couple of classes with two of the English professors who tried to ring the alarm bell regarding Cho's dangerous mental state. Yet, at first glance, I do not see how VT did anything wrong. His writings were disturbing, and he was a creepy person in general, but he had not made any specific threats toward people. You cannot just lock up someone because you think they MIGHT do something. More should have been done following a court's decision that Cho receive an evaluation, which apparently never happened.

That is an indictment of the piss-poor mental health system not only in Virginia but across the nation. We simply do not take mental health problems seriously, and we overburden and underfund the programs we do have. Insurance is finally starting to treat mental health as seriously as physical health. There is still a great stigma in admitting you have a problem and need help. With so many people alarmed by Cho's behavior, something should have been done. He should have been forced into treatment and suspended from school until he got it. But VT did not have the authority to do that until Cho either threatened someone (including himself) or actually DID something. Unfortunately, last Monday, he did do something....something monstrous and unimaginable to most of us.

Having this school shooting hit so close to home for me, I have been disconnected from the ensuing arguments over gun control. Being in Europe while this story plays out has been interesting, because Europeans really do think we're crazy for loving guns as much as we do. It reminded me of the relatively peaceful (albeit destructive) riots in Copenhagen a couple of months ago. No one had guns, and no one was killed. Property was destroyed, and hundreds were arrested, but not one life was extinguished. That amazed me because I knew that had this riot happened in America, it would have been a bloodbath with bullets flying. Europeans don't allow anyone who is not military or in the police force to have a gun. Their gun violence is almost nothing as a result.

Yes, I know that we have the 2nd amendment for very good historical reasons, and I support the right for law abiding, mentally and emotionally stable citizens to own firearms. I support the right to hunt and fish, although not with a machine gun. I think that criminal background checks are not enough. We need to block anyone with a history of mental illness (including depression) from owning a gun. And we should take away guns from people who develop such illnesses. I know that would proclude even me from having a gun because I have a history of depression. But I am OK with that. We can't take away all guns, but the restictions should be such that only the most stable and law abiding should be able to have them. And increase those penalities for having an illegal gun. I do not think that having students pack heat to class is the answer. It is only the most well trained who could be counted on shooting the shooter in a case like Virginia Tech's massacre. I do not know the answer to this question, but these are my thoughts right now.

Another thing hitting me hard about the Virginia Tech massacre is the murder of an RA (resident advisor) in West AJ who was killed just doing his job. My first year as an RA, I served on the 2nd floor of East AJ, which is the sister building of West AJ and the traditional dorm for band members. When Cho decided to confront and kill that girl in West AJ, the RA responded as he was taught to do, as he was expected to do. We never expect someone to have a gun. I imagine all he did was ask what was going on before Cho coldly shot him through the neck. As a member of the RA "fraternity", this death hits my soul. It could have easily been me or any of my friends coming upon a heated situation who could have been killed. We never considered that when we served as RAs. Mostly, we worried about belligerence and keeping people safe. We wanted to prevent people from having alcohol poisoning or having an accident. Murder was not something we considered. Now, future RAs will have to consider just that.

VT also hit the right notes regarding student grades. Students who cannot face going back to school can just accept their grade as it stood on Monday, April 16. Or students can submit assignments, but not take the final. Or they can go on and finish out the semester as "normal". That was a fair, compassionate answer. I'm not sure what choice I would have made; it would depend on where my grades had stood at the time of the shooting.

I do know one thing: Virginia Tech will endure and come out of this stronger. Around the world, Hokie alums are united in their grief and their love for the university. I hope the press respects the university's request to leave and let the students come back to class in peace. It will be difficlut enough to get back to normal without the world's press following every move. I would still send my own child to VT, and I would not hestitate to recommend Virginia Tech as a safe place to send anyone's child. What happened in Blacksburg could have happened anywhere. It does not matter if you are Amish and isolated from the rest of the world, or in a lilly white upper class suburb of Denver; NO ONE is safe from this kind of psychosis. When a psychotic person is in your midst, you are not safe from his/her wild behavior. I think most college students realize that what happened at VT could have happened on any campus. That is why i have hope that there will be something positive to come out of this tragedy.

News, including links to the Hokie Spirit Fund can be found at

Thursday, April 19, 2007