I got to my office at Virginia Tech a bit before 9 a.m. on April 16, 2007, and set about my day as most professors do, prepping for class, commenting on student papers and answering emails. I took a call from home that said there was a news flash about gunshots on the campus. Then a colleague knocked on my door and said something big was happening a few buildings away. From that moment, things picked up speed.
As I searched the Web for information, I began to hear sirens, endless sirens. Everyone was told to stay in locked offices. Two long hours later, we were allowed to walk directly to the parking lot, and everyone peeled away from campus. By then, it had become clear that an awful, violent event had occurred. But as the details trickled in — 33 dead, including the shooter and a student in my Caribbean literature class — I felt new levels of intensity followed by abject stillness, numbness and despair.
A week after the shooting, I met with that class to talk about the student who was killed. My mother cooked a Caribbean meal of fried plantains, black-eyed peas and rice, and a beef stew with a vegetarian alternative, all chased down with ginger beer (the nearest thing to a Caribbean soft drink that we could get on short notice in Blacksburg).
In all my years of writing for stage and page and classroom, I had never felt so dumbstruck. Yet I was called upon to account in words for what happened in our midst to a class of equally dumbstruck and disbelieving students who wanted, needed to hear something from me as their teacher. Breaking bread with them and eating my mother’s Caribbean meal was a start, and we talked about the dead and about the funny habits of the student whose usual spot at the desk near the door remained vacant. We put a plate on her desk with some ginger beer, and we used her first name in the present tense as if she’d breeze into the class at any moment and take her place.
A memorial on the main field of the campus bears the name of each victim on Virginia Tech’s famous Hokie stone arranged in an oval. There was an early campaign to include the shooter’s name in the middle — symbolically in the middle of the pain he had caused — but the grief was too much and left no room for such a high degree of compassion. Even I found it hard to argue for the shooter, despite my training as a psychiatric nurse and my conviction that his illness rather than any evil drove him to commit mass murder.
That day at Virginia Tech led to years of sadness and hours of talk about gun violence. I swore with my colleagues to honor the dead in any way I could. I wrote poetry about the shootings while steering clear of any sensational news outlets that would sully the memory of the place and the dignity of the lives lost.
I figured I thought so much about the shootings because I still worked where they took place. I thought that distance would help me to move on with less grieving punctuating my waking life and my dreams too. When I left Virginia Tech for UCLA last year, I tried to put the slaughter behind me.
Los Angeles is mad, busy, rude and riveting. Cars form relationships with each other on the 10 and the 5 (notice my use of the definite article to dignify an idiosyncratic driving experience). Gun violence peppers the news, and gangs sow grief citywide. UCLA feels roped off from all that, a fortified paradise in the city, but on Wednesday, when I heard that the campus was on lockdown because of gun violence, simultaneously I thought, “Not again,” and, “Of course, again.”
I was at home, dressed and ready to leave for the office. I opened a text that told me to switch on the news, and right away, two other messages arrived, both asking whether I was OK and noting that gun violence seemed to follow me. Alerts sent to the UCLA community advised everyone not on campus to stay away and those already on campus to lock themselves behind closed doors and wait. I was safe, but worried. I did not switch on the news, but I imagined the panic in the air and the sense of living in a militarized zone and those sirens overlapping and loud.
I found myself thinking that the university, a place of learning, should be hallowed ground, exempt from the rages and readiness of gun violence as a response to disappointment, hopelessness or psychosis. But of course it isn’t. I hoped for guns to disappear from the equation of anger and its expression as deadly violence. But of course they won’t. I wished that some goodwill or just exasperation — enough is enough — would radiate from the deadly incident and alter how our society operates with conflict. But I fear it won’t.
After so many shootings — not just at universities and high schools and elementary schools, but everywhere across the country — I have developed a post-atrocity routine: I feel sad for the victims, deplore the ease with which guns can be obtained and consider America’s blighted history of violence. These acts of reflection and understanding do nothing to turn back the clock and restore the dead to health, but they force me to forgive the perpetrators and honor the victims. I console the living; I mourn the dead. I walk the city and campus as they did only yesterday while they breathed and prospered.
Fred D’Aguiar is a professor of English at UCLA.
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