Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Appalachian Spring


From 1978 to 1981 I was a student at Virginia Tech, something that (26 years later) I haven't thought about much. Until this week. Actually, that's not quite true. When I do recall my years there, it is almost always at this time of the year. Spring in Blacksburg, Virginia is a spring that I have experienced no place else. It is an awakening, a reprieve from the harsh winter of the mountains, a touch of grace in the trees, a force of nature. One spring day, when I was a sophmore there, I listened as the local radio station played "Appalachian Spring," Aaron Copeland's rousing symphony. I thought, "This is the place that music was written for." Even today, when I hear that piece of music, I picture the new greens of those Virginia trees, the wild flowers blanketing hillsides, the lavender redbush branches nestled with white dogwood blossoms, the bright air.

Now my spring memories have a horrible replacement -- and one I am not sure I can ever push away.

The brutal murders that happened at Virginia Tech this week ripped away the lives of innocent kids and their professors. It ripped apart memories too. I have watched the TV news for two days, and I though I understand what has happened, a part of me just can't take in how or where they were killed. On the TV I see the building where I struggled through international economics, the dorm where my highschool bandmate and friend Brian (tenor sax, marching band) lived, the sidewalk that leads you to the architecture department. I see hundreds of kids huddled against the wind on the drill field, just as I used to when I crossed its expanse to get to class. They are huddled together against a darker force, though, and one I hope they never have to face again.

The Virgina Tech I remember is one where you lived side by side with other kids studying horticulture, philosophy, agronomy, accounting, or Russian history. It was the "cow college" of the state, the landgrant school shaped by the New Dealers for those kids wanting a practical education. It didn't have the prestige of UVA or the history of William and Mary, the other state schools. It was for the daughters and sons of Virginia who maybe didn't come from as much, but wanted better -- and the teaching staff made us work hard for that.

As I watched the Tech students interviewed on TV, I saw in them the same practical, unflappable attitude of the students I remember from my time there. It doesn't surprise me that the shooting victims were reported to be calm and alert by the EMT staff, or that the students immediately organized vigils and support groups, or that people quickly focussed on healing and getting back to their studies. When you are the working backbone of a place, that's just what you do. And this is a place with alot of backbone.

Way back when, I took alot of ribbing for being a Hokie - like alot of us did who had friends going to more "fancy" schools. Today, I find myself humbled and saddened by the horror that took place at Tech, but reawakened to a pride in that place and its students. I pray for the people who died there. For the survivors, I hope they can reclaim their spring. And for me, saying I'm proud to be a Hokie will never feel the same again.

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