Celebration in Midst of Sadness

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The hardwood floors at Sharkey's were already sticky with beer, and the crowd continued to swell. Customers filled the red leather couches and slouched along the walls, clustering beneath posters of Bob Marley, John Coltrane and the Beatles, pleading "Let it be." The bar disappeared behind their numbers.

Alex Scott, a 22-year-old senior at Virginia Tech, might have blended in fine, had it not been for his clothes. In a blur of jeans and flip-flops, he wore a white collared shirt and black slacks.

He had chosen the outfit carefully -- not for the bar where he now stood, but for the memorial service he had left a few hours earlier.

This was not how college was supposed to end. Scott and the other seniors who will graduate from Virginia Tech tonight were supposed to be lost in a continuum of celebration, bouncing from one party to the next in a squeeze-it-all-in-before-you-leave explosion.

Instead, they spent it watching as the campus, the backdrop of many of their formative memories, was shrouded in the aftermath of disaster: an overflow of flowers, police and media. They swayed between celebrations and memorial services, between pig roasts and funerals.

They wore church clothes to bars.

"We are the graduating class of 2007," said Scott, who is from Sterling. "It has a new meaning now."

The carefree years of college slammed abruptly into unthinkable darkness -- the deadliest shooting by an individual in U.S. history. The victims were Virginia Tech classmates. The shooter was, too.

At the service, "they had candles for all 14 people," each light representing a person whom his department, engineering, had lost in the April 16 massacre, Scott said. "Then someone would walk up and say something about each person."

Scott's friend squeezed through the masses and handed him a drink.

"Afterward, we just thought, 'Let's go downtown.' It was just a lot of serious stuff," Scott said. "We've been to so many of these memorial services."

Today, Scott and thousands of others will graduate, walking across the stage less than four weeks after Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people and injured 29 more before killing himself. In many ways, the graduation promises to be like any other.

The students, under the gaze of family members, will fill Lane Stadium and listen as retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid gives the commencement speech. They will flip tassels, cheer and applaud. They will party afterward.

But like the weeks that preceded it, the day will oscillate between merriment and mourning.

The students who were killed will receive posthumous degrees in their areas of study, each name read out loud.

* * *

Earlier on the same day that Scott and his friends escaped to Sharkey's, the sun had been fierce. Its rays beat down on the back of Chris Poch's neck.

Poch and about 50 other students had formed a circle in front of Burruss Hall every afternoon the week after the shootings. Eyes closed and heads bowed, they prayed and sang hymns, clapping their hands to punctuate a series of hallelujahs.

Poch's voice was not louder than any. His hands did not clap harder than any. But the thin-framed, young-faced 21-year-old in khaki shorts and flip-flops was a leader among them nonetheless.

"I thought I'd spend my last couple of weeks here coasting," he said. "Instead, I'm thinking how can we do ministry more effectively."

As the president of vtONE, a collection of youth ministries, the Springfield native received hundreds of e-mails from groups across the nation the day after the shootings. They asked how they could pray for the campus.

The next day, he said, he started getting e-mails from students on campus, asking what could they do.

One idea, he said, was the daily prayer, which centered on a new theme each day.

"Grieving is a progression," Poch said. "If we had talked about love the first day, they might not have been ready."

Poch said he knows the ministries are headed for major changes, and he does not mind that he won't be on hand for them. He said he is ready to leave.

"I've done enough stuff on campus that I'm tired," he said, adding that he will start a computer programming job at a McLean company May 21. "I'm ready to serve in a different way and not be in charge for once."

University officials said they are trying hard to strike a balance in today's ceremony between looking ahead, as Poch is trying to do, and remembering April 16.

"We certainly want to pay tribute to the students who died. But we certainly don't want to forget about the accomplishments of those who are graduating," said Mark Owczarski, a university spokesman.

He added that the commencement is part of the healing process. "It's about beginnings. It's about beginning a new chapter in your life. I certainly hope that students will throw their caps up, and throw them high in the air."

* * *

In one fluid movement, Lindsay Pieper slid into a booth at Dietrick's student dining hall a week and a half after the shooting. If ever there was an optimist among the graduates, the type to throw her cap just an inch or so higher than most, it's Pieper.

Decked out in her lacrosse uniform, she was ready to get on a bus to North Carolina for a game. She wasn't expecting to win (and didn't), but she was grateful for the distraction.

"We're all just putting it off and ignoring it," Pieper, 21, of Albany, N.Y., said of graduation. "I can't believe I'm leaving. I don't want to leave."

She hadn't heard of the university four years ago, when she dismissed it as a technical school not right for her. But then she visited and saw the gothic-style stone buildings offset by green fields, and she said she knew she didn't want to go anywhere else.

"The seniors are leaving, and they aren't going to get to see normal here again, but the freshmen aren't going to have the same experience," she said. "At least I had three and three-quarters years of great memories and experiences."

There was the winning goal her team made her freshman year against George Mason, a team they were never supposed to beat. Then there was an impromptu camping trip, when she and a dozen other women went to Jefferson National Forest in the middle of November. They assembled their tents in the dark and spent the night shivering.

"It was such a disaster, but I guess that's what made it fun," Pieper said.

Camping was on a list she and friends had put together of things they wanted to do before graduating. But the 170 rounds Cho fired that April morning re-prioritized everything.

Students started moving at different paces. Some of Pieper's fellow lacrosse players wanted to go home, but others stayed and mechanically propelled forward, wanting to keep practicing, needing to pick up their sticks.

Pieper, president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, was among the latter.

"On lacrosse, being a senior, people look up to you, and you have to stay strong and not break down," she said.

The other reason she wanted to stay, she said, was to avoid the inevitable questions that members of the Class of 2007 will hear for the rest of their lives: Where were you during the shooting? Did you know anyone who was killed?

The questions will come up in job interviews with the first glance of a résumé. They will be asked by strangers who notice alumni wearing one of the many school T-shirts they accumulated over the years.

Scott said he expects his children and possibly grandchildren to bring it up one day.

"You'll always hear, 'Oh, you're from Virginia Tech, you graduated the year of the massacre?' everywhere, for the rest of my life probably," Scott said. "I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing."

After graduation, Scott plans to attend a master's program at MIT. There, he will continue to study material science and engineering, exploring the essence of matter.

He hopes one day to create a commercially viable material capable of carrying medicine to the precise spot in the body where it is needed most.

He hopes it will save lives.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company