This is a long, serious post, so if you’re only into my happy, light stuff, you might wanna skip it. I’m in an introspective mood today, forgive me!
So often our life is defined by big events. I was speaking to my mom (hey, mom!) the other day about favorite years or decades, and she mentioned something about how her life was defined by big things that happened-John F Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam wars, riots, 9/11…ect. It got me thinking about my defining moments. The thing about defining moments is that they are such a big deal at the time, but as happens with anything, they pass and often we forget. Most defining events are often tragedies. It is good to forget them because life would be depressing if that is all we ever thought about. But we should never forget the moment, how it changed our life, and how we got some good out of a what was a horrible tragedy.
As for my defining events? Not 9/11, though I remember it vividly. I won’t go into details of the day, but I was upset, and for years I would shiver thinking about it. However, I was young and distant enough from it that I was able to move on. I recognized its significance, but it never hit home (that I remember). Still, sometimes I will watch videos from youtube about that day and experience it all over again. It is raw, depressing, and unfathomable, but sometimes I need to be reminded so I don’t forget.
My defining event would be the shootings at Virginia Tech. I don’t pretend to have experienced the worst of it- I know that my friends at Tech experienced more pain, fear and sadness than I ever could imagine. But it affected me more than anything ever has. For those of you that don’t know, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech are rival schools. Still, I had many friends at Tech and visited often, so I was very connected to it- more so than any other school. I remember going to my sorority house after my 11 o’clock class on April 16, 2007 after hearing whispers about it and all of us watching CNN. They didn’t really know what was going on- we assumed it was a domestic thing (a similar situation happened just week prior)- and that only 1 or 2 people died. Then after a while they announced it- 32 students. My heart sank. I texted all my friends at Tech. Everyone was ok but no one knew what was going on. I talked to my good friend Meredith, who was an engineer, so I knew she could have been in one of those classes. She had been in lockdown in the library and didn’t know what was going on. She was nervous/excited because of the commotion. It wasn’t until I talked to her later that week that I learned she knew many of the students killed. She was shaken.
I knew one student who passed away through a friend of mine. I was not close to her, but I had met her, and, more importantly, my friend was close to her. I knew professors who lost children and friends who lost friends or siblings. Everyone was in pain. UVa organized a vigil and thousands of donations and cards were sent. Beta Bridge (the bridge we paint to advertise for events) was painted over that day saying “Hoos for Hokies.” Usually the bridge gets re-painted over in a day. This was not touched from April 16 until the summer (July, I believe- the longest it has ever gone not painted over). No one dared to paint over it. While we did what we could, nothing could really be done. Though we were rivals, I think UVa poured out more support for Tech than any other university. We are sister schools, so what one does to the other is felt by both. Everyone was connected.
I remember walking around the next day and just thinking, “it could have been me. It could have been here.” Doors at UVa also weren’t lockable from the inside like they weren't at Tech. I remember looking around and thinking all these things and wondering how I had never noticed that before. That is what was (and is) so scary- it didn’t matter that it was 120 miles away- it was at a place just like this to people just like us who were in classrooms just like we were. I remember being in a Jewish History class that day and reading the Cav Daily about the shootings. Everyone was still in shock and not really mentally present. The class was smaller than usual in attendance, but what my professor did was great and is something I will never forget. He was shaken as we all were- professors, like him, died too. Anyways, he lectured for about 35 minutes about how the Jewish faith heals and thinks of death and tragedy. It was beautiful, relevant, and, in a way, healing. The Tech shootings affected everyone at UVa, and I applaud his ability to know that no one was really in a good place that day, so he made it relevant the best way he could. I don’t remember the details, but I remember how moving it was and how it healed a little part of me. The rest of that semester is a fog (I would have to look at pictures)- funny how I can’t remember the rest of it after the Tech shootings. There was only about a month left, but for Tech, school was done.
Things changed after that- new text message and email alerts were made, buildings got more security, doors got locks, people reported more suspicious activity and the mental health field went under intense scruitiny and tightening. But I believe that this could have happened anywhere and that Tech wasn’t at fault. Our college security system was flawed, and this was the unfortunate wake up call. Even with all this security, some things can never be stopped. That is just life- you can’t prevent everything but you can’t live in fear either. I believe at some unconscious level this event led me into the counseling field- I wanted to work with students before it ever got to that point where they would do something like this. I may have gone into the field anyways, but it definitely pushed me into an area where I was tiptoeing with renewed purpose and vigor.
The thing is the people in these tragedies, 9/11 and 4/16, are my friends, my family, my coworkers, and my acquaintances. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t anyone I knew well. It was that it could have been anyone. Anyone. It could have been me. That’s why these events cannot be forgotten. I don’t think you can talk to a single friend of mine that was not dramatically shaped in some lasting way by this event. I also know that something like it will probably happen again in my lifetime and few will be even worse. It’s scary. But I still have to remind myself not to forget. I caught myself last month not being fully understanding when a friend was talking about how the Tech tragedy still gets to her every time she is in a classroom. I was sympathetic, but I didn’t really connect. I had forgotten.
I don’t want to forget, because though life goes on, we should take every day as a gift and not let it go to waste. I’m not saying we should be depressed and not move on when bad things happen, but we should take our defining events and make them a permanent part of who we are. Hota Kotb spoke at Techs graduation in 2008 to many of my friends, and in that speech she talks about jobs (obvi) and also overcoming tragedies, whatever they may be. She said something to the nature of resolving not to let a day go to waste. Whether it’s the most mundane day, to enjoy it and live life not wanting what you don’t have, but wanting what you do. That is what makes you a stronger and happier person and keeps your defining events in your heart and life. Get rid of the bad and keep the good. Listen to music. Laugh and be happy. You’re allowed and it’s good. Because I realize that people just like me like me have not had the chance to live and experience even my few 24 years. People just like me. And that is something from my defining moment that I hope to never forget.