Virginia Tech students remember those who died in shooting

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010

When Virginia Tech student Molly Pearl was a freshman, she slept through her morning French class on April 16, 2007. And perhaps for that reason, she will be there Friday evening to commemorate the nation's worst massacre by a lone gunman by lighting a white candle and placing it next to one of 32 limestone blocks -- one for each victim, including Pearl's French professor and 11 students from the class she missed.

The ceremony has been held annually since the shooting, but it has taken on extra significance this year because of the looming graduation of many of the students who were freshmen at the time of the massacre -- a dwindling group that calls itself "the 4/16 generation."

The thousands who are saying goodbye are preparing for the days ahead with feelings of nostalgia, camaraderie and survivor's guilt. Many are wondering what it will mean for Virginia Tech after they are gone, when most of the witnesses leave Blacksburg and become alumni.

There also are those, like Pearl, who are staying on. Her academic progress stalled after the shootings because of depression and a resulting leave from college, but she is back on track and expects to graduate in 2011.

"People in my class tried to jump out of windows," said Pearl, 21, who is from Fairfax. "What would I have done? I would have stood there, frozen. If I had gone to class I would have been shot. I probably would have been killed."

Virginia Tech, with a student population of 28,000, has been losing students who experienced the massacre and its extended aftermath. Nearly a quarter of them graduated one month after the shootings by student Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 and himself and left 25 others wounded. Two more classes graduated in 2008 and 2009. The 2010 commencement, scheduled for May 14, will see off most of those who were freshmen during the massacre.

Brandon Carroll, 21, of Poolesville, helped pack up the apartment of Mike Pohle, who was killed in a German class across the hall from Pearl's French class. Carroll, now the student body president, said he wonders whether the April 16 date will continue to be as momentous for future students.

"It's inevitable that it's going to fade a little bit and that it won't mean as much to the community," Carroll said. "If you don't have that shared bond with other classes, then it's slowly going to lose its significance."

Friday's "Day of Remembrance" is expected to follow a schedule similar to previous years' memorials. Classes will be canceled, and there are events planned throughout the day to highlight the achievements of the victims and honor their memory.

Seniors say they already sense a dwindling intensity about the tragedy among younger students, some of whom appear to view it mainly as a day off. The university has decided to resume holding classes on April 16 beginning in 2012, the fifth anniversary of the shooting.

"I think the gravity of April 16 will be lifted a little bit after our class goes through," said Kelsey Steiner, 21, a senior psychology major who shared a class during her freshman year with Nicole White, who was killed in the German class. "To have been here and felt the emotions and to have experienced the fear, the pain, the grief, everything, is something I don't think another class will know."

Pearl knows, and she's haunted by the fact that there easily could have been a 33rd stone inscribed with her name.

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