BLACKSBURG — April 16. That’s how everyone at Virginia Tech refers to the horrific events of that frigid Monday morning five years ago when a student gunman with a history of mental health problems opened fire in a dorm and then in an academic building.
He murdered 27 students and five faculty members before killing himself.
For the past four years, Va. Tech has not held classes on April 16. At first, it was just too painful, and last year, the date fell on a Saturday. This year, which marks the fifth anniversary, April 16 is a Monday. And university leaders decided it was time to return to class.
“There was agreement that this was the right time,” said Va. Tech Provost Mark G. McNamee, who has been at Tech since 2001. “We did not want anyone to think that this is a holiday.”
When you read through the biographies of the April 16 victims, McNamee said, a theme emerges: Each had a deep love for learning that led to grand dreams for the future and a desire to make a difference in the world.
“One way to remember them is to go to class,” he said. “That’s what they were doing, and that’s what we live for.”
Faculty members will be given free rein as how to mark this class day. Some might share their experiences or allow students to ask questions, McNamee said, while others might proceed with class as usual.
“And they may not know...until they get there,” McNamee said. “It’s uncharted territory for us.”
McNamee said each year the university has provided workshops, panel discussions and other events aimed at guiding faculty members in how to discuss April 16 with their students. Each year there is less need for such training, he said, as most have found their own style and comfort level.
Faculty have watched upperclassmen graduate and be replaced with a new class of freshmen. Five years means the undergraduate population has mostly turned over. Today’s students were in high school or middle school at the time of the shootings. They likely followed the news at the time, but they also likely referred to the massacre using the name of the college, not the date.
Now they look to their professors for a first-person history lesson.
In planning events for the 2012 Day of Remembrance, a committee made up of faculty, staff, students, relatives of victims and others wanted events that would recognize the lives lost, console those who were on campus in 2007 and educate a younger generation of students.
“The family members were really concerned that over time people might forget,” McNamee said.
The memorial events started on Saturday with a 3.2- mile run and walk in honor of the 32 victims, and a picnic for rescue and public safety workers and their families. Meanwhile, several alumni groups across the country gathered for community service projects.
On Monday, a ceremonial candle will burn for 24 hours near a memorial to the April 16 victims on the Drillfield, Va. Tech’s main quad. The community is invited to gather near the memorial at lunchtime and then again at 7:30 p.m. for a candlelight vigil.
Those rooms were empty for months, McNamee said, while officials decided if they should tear down the building, leave it standing or renovate it. In 2009, they opened a transformed Norris Hall, which is now home to the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.
“It’s dramatically different, it’s aesthetically beautiful,” he said. “There’s nothing on that floor that could remind you of those classrooms.”
I will be tweeting updates from the 2012 Day of Remembrance at Virginia Tech on Monday. You can follow along at twitter.com/wpjenna.