A Year Later, Va. Tech Is Still Healing

Four members of the Virginia Tech community whose lives were changed forever on April 16, 2007, reflect on a somber anniversary. Video by AP
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech students have learned to talk about it in shorthand, if they talk about it at all.

They do not use the words massacre, or shootings, or rampage. They call it "April 16th," and sometimes not even that. To say "four-sixteen" is enough. Everyone knows.

One year ago today, on a cold, windy morning, Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people on this campus before turning his gun on himself. The damage from that day is still so raw and so extensive that many here can barely bring themselves to utter his name. They will say "the killer," or "the shooter," but rarely "Cho."

"When I talk to people about it, they choke before they say his name," said Julie Evans, 19, a sophomore from Woodbridge. "There are a lot of sensitive words people don't like to say out loud."

Then there are the names, in this same system of shorthand, that have grown more familiar in the past year. Say "Caitlin," and many will know the name means Caitlin Millar Hammaren, a sophomore from Westtown, N.Y., killed in her French class. Or that "Reema" refers to Reema Samaha, a bright, radiant young woman from Centreville who seemed to have friends from all over.

"Every community that has to heal is a little ambivalent about how it has to heal," said Jane Vance, a writing instructor who has become a close mentor to many of her students since the tragedy. "Talking about it is the open wound. But not talking about it is being repressed."

For the past year, these abbreviations have helped to ease this campus back to something that resembles normalcy and to negotiate the difficult balance between not forgetting and moving on. But today it is 4/16 again, bringing an unwanted milestone that is reopening the wounds that so many students, parents, faculty members and others have struggled to close. Although the public memorials and remembrance ceremonies planned for today are designed to reaffirm the resiliency and extraordinary unity that have come to define this campus, they will also be reminders that healing is difficult and time-consuming and that it is mostly done in private.

"We have struggled to equilibrium," said Vance, who will stand with her students this morning at a commemoration on the Drillfield and again tonight at a candlelight vigil. "But no matter how strong we are, how wise we are, it hurts."

Like any anniversary, it will be a day to gauge changes, large and small. The large differences are easy to list. Tighter gun access for those with a history of mental illness. New campus security measures that include e-mails and text messages from police. A new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention planned for the same place in Norris Hall where so much of the cruelty and killing occurred.

But the psychological toll remains scattered and difficult to pinpoint, surfacing occasionally in awkward ways, from taboo words to the eerie feeling some students get walking by Norris.

"It feels like just yesterday that it happened," said Wesley Yeager, 20, a junior from Stafford County. She was outside Norris a year ago when the gunshots began and police rushed her to safety in a nearby building. A week later, after classes resumed and Yeager saw flowers placed on a nearby desk in memory of a murdered classmate, she went home for the semester and did not return to campus until the fall.

"There was a period of time that I didn't know how to feel about anything," Yeager said. A numbness set in, and it stayed with her for months. "It was hard to say 'Hey, this affected me in a really bad way.' And I don't think it's gone away fully."

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