Classes Resume Amid Empty Desks

A fence is installed at Norris Hall, where most of the slayings occurred at Virginia Tech. The building will remain closed for the semester.
A fence is installed at Norris Hall, where most of the slayings occurred at Virginia Tech. The building will remain closed for the semester. (By Robert F. Bukaty -- Associated Press)
By Theresa Vargas and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 23 -- No one denied the obvious at Virginia Tech -- that pretending to be normal felt abnormal.

Many of the flowers on the memorials had wilted, and the candles had melted. But still they were there, lingering reminders of a gunman's fury a week earlier. So were the scores of police officers, camera-wielding journalists and green-vested chaplains who stood seemingly at every corner.

As classes resumed for the first time since the tragedy, more than 200 volunteers, marked with armbands, offered counseling. They had come from as far as California and sat in about 150 classes where students or professors had been among the victims.

It would not be a normal day. But it would be a collective effort toward one.

Everywhere, there were signs of someone trying to move on. A professor who had lost a friend and spent the last week in his apartment returned to his lab even before the campus stirred awake. "I have to go," Waleed El Zawawy said. "We have to live." There were backpacks slung on shoulders and the rhythm of foot traffic between academic buildings. A girl sat cross-legged on a grassy field, a highlighter in her hand and a 1,300-page accounting book in her lap.

With less than two weeks left in the semester, Virginia Tech officials said last week that students unable to finish course work this spring because of the trauma of the massacre will not have to. Those students will qualify for credit with the grades they had earned before the killer struck. But university officials said about 80 percent of the 26,000 students returned to classes Monday, a week after Seung Hui Cho, a bespectacled, lonely gunman, shattered the rural calm of the campus, killing 33, including himself.

"It still feels like home. It's just a little ransacked, a little messy right now," said Lauren Grimes, 20, a sophomore from Woodbridge.

The engineering major returned to a class where at least one chair was empty because its usual occupant was killed in the rampage.

"We're going to be fine," she said.

"I'd even say better than fine," her friend Kim Scott, 20, a sophomore from Virginia Beach, added. "I think we're going to be stronger."

There had been guilt in laughing at anything for most of the week, they said, because they knew others were in so much pain.

"But the laughter, although we feel bad about it, it's what's going to help us," Grimes said. "It's kind of like, I don't know what the word is."

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