Thursday, April 19, 2007

Shelter from the Storm

I spent the last three days trying to understand what happened at Virginia Tech. I did what I did after September 11th. I obsessively watched the news. I read stories online. Checked out blogs. Thought about it from an anthropological perspective. All in a feeble attempt to understand it. To find someone capable of telling me WHY such a thing would happen.

I got to my college campus yesterday. It was a semi-typical April day - overcast, showers, raw. As I walked to class, instead of trudging through with my head down in thought as I usually do, I looked at the faces of the babies around me as I passed them by. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty years old. So full of potential. Not innocent, certainly, in the strictest definition of the word, but innocent nonetheless. My iPod brought up my favorite Bob Dylan song, one of my favorite songs ever sung, Shelter from the Storm. How ironic. The song usually gives me a strange combination of sadness and comfort. Yesterday it did that very thing, but it was oddly different. There were kids walking in groups, couples holding hands, drinking coffee, talking on their cell phones. Doing what college kids do. And should be doing. Not looking over their shoulders. Not walking through metal detectors to get to class. They are here and bursting with thoughts and ideas and potential.

My professor I teach for ended the class with an announcement that her TAs would be giving their students the opportunity to talk in discussion sections about what happened. She explained what happens in some chiefdom societies when someone commits a heinous act. The family sends the perpetrator away to live with other kin and then take the brunt of the disgrace and are left to pay restitution to the rest of the villagers. She asked if the students thought that a "loner" personality was possible in smaller scale societies. It got me to thinking about the role we play, or should play, as human beings in reaching out to loners our society creates. I met with the first of my discussion sections. Their normally sassy dispositions were muted when I asked what was on their minds. "Fucked up." That summed it up. I tried to ask questions to make them think. I ended up asking questions that made me think. Do you feel safe? What is the line between freedom and security? What is our responsibility to reach out to others in need? I heard rants about the Keystone Kop-reputation the campus police have, but I also heard that the students themselves needed to take part in their own security and not totally rely on others to make them safe. I heard concerns about stereotypes of ethnicities and people with emotional problems. I heard flippant comments masking fear. I heard apathy masking frustration. I heard sadness and wistfulness and hope all at one time.

Four hours of discussion sections later, I drove home in the dark wondering who would give me an answer. How could this have happened? How could that poor, disturbed kid have slipped through the system that time and time again tried to address his issues but ultimately threw him back into the world? How could 33 people, bursting with potential, be wiped off the planet in one grim morning? What can we do to stop this from ever happening again? I wish I had the answer.

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