He came into the room through the back door. His burly frame made the everyone in the room, including myself sit up a little straighter. The way he looked at me sent cold shivers down my spine.
Something was wrong.
I was finishing my last couple weeks as his student teacher. He had turned the class over to me, content with my competency and ability. He never walked in during read aloud time.
He asked me to step into the hall. He told me to go call my mom.
While he was in the teachers’ lounge, he saw the news clips coming out of Blacksburg, and the news wasn’t good. He knew I was a recent Virginia Tech alumnus and that my sister was there currently finishing up her sophomore year.
I sat in my car in the parking lot of the elementary school hours before school released trying to get through to my mom or my sister. The phones lines were jammed. Finally, my mom returned my call. My sister was safe. She hadn’t gone to class. She was in her off-campus apartment under the weather, but safe.
The next morning, I arrived back in the classroom, nervous about how the real teacher, my mentor, was going to handle a tragedy with a class full of fourth graders.
I will never forget what he told me.
“Miss Garner you are the expert. If there is one thing this class knows, it’s that you love Virginia Tech. It’s your school. You are the one to shepherd them through this.”
I was speechless. I didn’t want to be the expert. I wanted to watch the real professional handle this so I could make notes, and hope I never had to use them.
How was I going to talk to a group of fourth graders about something my mind didn’t really comprehend in the first place?
That morning, April 17, 2007, made me a believer in the capacity and resiliency of children. We spent two hours that morning talking about what some students had seen and heard on the news. The ten year olds I taught handled the unimaginable with grace and wisdom beyond their years. They listened and questioned. They shared their emotions and they let me share mine.
Years later I sat in a sunny airport terminal awaiting the boarding call for my flight. I was headed to New York City and the surrounding areas to house hunt for my family’s next duty station.
Across from me was a couple who were headed home from a spring vacation in Virginia Beach. Beside me was a man who was clearly on business travel. His small carryon, laptop, and slightly wrinkled suit gave him away.
I tried to read my book, to ignore the conversations going on around me. But after a few feeble attempts, I gave up, and stashed my book. My mind was racing with questions and possibilities of what the long weekend would bring.
The couple noticed my empty hands and began to make idle chit-chat. The airport stranger usual-where are you going, whatcha going to do there, kind of thing. Apparently, we were more interesting than whatever work needed to be completed pre-flight, because the businessman soon stowed his laptop and joined the conversation.
I can’t blame him.
The couple was from Newtown, CT, where six months earlier tragedy struck their elementary school. When they quietly revealed their hometown, I could see the mix of deep sadness, defiance, and pride on their faces. And the look of shock on the businessman’s face. I knew those looks.
When everyone’s first question is, “Were you there,” you begin to cling tightly to the truth about what you know about the before and what you see rise in the after. You begin to develop that look-the one I saw flash across the couples faces. The look that says, “Yes, tragedy unleashed a level of grief we were unaccustomed to, but we are not only about tragedy, we are so much more.”
I told them I understood their hushed revelation. I was a graduate of Virginia Tech, something I am both infinitely proud of and simultaneously a little nervous to share. In that moment there was instant community.
Today, I am more conscious of the date than I have been in years past.
It’s not that I’ve forgotten, it’s that time does have a way soothing acute pain and anxiety.
But in this time of collective uncertainty and tragedy, I am reminded of how much I learned from being part of a community that suffered a mighty blow, yet, the very next day was emboldened by one of our own.
She reminded us of who we are and that we will prevail. We have.
And we will.
*Title and the linked text is from Nikki Giovanni’s Convocation address delivered April 17, 2007