Former Virginia Tech English department chair and distinguished professor Lucinda Roy saw the tragedy unfold on the TV screen in her home and had a terrible realization. Cho was the student she had struggled to get to know–the loner who found speech torturous. After he had been formally asked to leave a poetry class in which he had shared incendiary work that seemed directed at his classmates and teacher, Roy began the difficult task of working one-on-one with him in a poetry tutorial. During those months, a year and a half before the massacre, Roy came to realize that Cho was more than just a disgruntled young adult experimenting with poetic license; he was, in her opinion, seriously depressed and in urgent need of intervention.
But when Roy approached campus counseling as well as others in the university about Cho, she was repeatedly told that they could not intervene unless a student sought counseling voluntarily. Eventually, Roy’s efforts to persuade Cho to seek help worked. Unbelievably, on the three occasions he contacted the counseling center staff, he did not receive a comprehensive evaluation by them–a startling discovery Roy learned about after Cho’s death. More revelations were to follow. After responding to questions from the media and handing over information to law enforcement as instructed by Virginia Tech, Roy was shunned by the administration. Papers documenting Cho’s interactions with campus counseling were lost. The university was suddenly on the defensive.
Was the university, in fact, partially responsible for the tragedy because of the bureaucratic red tape involved in obtaining assistance for students with mental illness, or was it just, like many colleges, woefully underfunded and therefore underequipped to respond to such cases? Who was Seung-Hui Cho? Was he fully protected under the constitutional right to freedom of speech, or did his writing and behavior present serious potential threats that should have resulted in immediate intervention? How can we balance students’ individual freedom with the need to protect the community? These are the questions that have haunted Roy since that terrible day.
No Right to Remain Silent is one teacher’s cri de coeur–her dire warning that given the same situation today, two years later, the ending would be no less terrifying and no less tragic.
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||2 MB|
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There is a terrible moment in The Collector of Treasures, a volume of stories by the late Bessie Head, a biracial South African writer. The story is called “The Wind and a Boy.” In it, Head writes of a grandmother called Sejosenye who is devastated when she learns of the death of her grandchild, Friedman. Friedman is the pride of Sejosenye’s life, her reason for living. A policeman delivers the news of Friedman’s death to her: The boy has been knocked off his bicycle by a truck and run over. It is the only time the policeman appears in the story. It is the grandmother’s agonized response to the news that has always haunted me. “Can’t you return those words back?” she asks him, as if death has no more permanence than an item purchased in a store. Her simple question reverberates with pain. The policeman—the figure of authority to whom Sejosenye appeals—is powerless to comply with her request, much as he may wish to return her beautiful grandson to her. Devastated by her loss, Sejosenye succumbs to death soon afterwards.
There was a terrible moment on CNN on April 16, 2007, when Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum confirmed the rumors swirling around the campus. Reporters asked him to approximate how many had been killed: More than twenty, he said. The room full of reporters, accustomed though they were to bad news, gasped. I gasped, too. Everything refused to behave normally after that. I believe I sat perfectly still on the sofa for several seconds repeating what he’d said. More than twenty? Impossible! Can’t you return those words back?
I wanted to rush out of my house and into the street—turn left at the end of the driveway then left again onto Countryside Court, the road that had seemed pretty to me before but which ends in a cul-de-sac (something I should have remembered)—turn right onto North Main and run for two solid miles until I hit the mall—turn right at the chapel where I was married to a VT alumnus thirteen years before—skirt the Drillfield and hurry up the wide stone steps of Burruss Hall and find Chief Flinchum to demand that he return those words back to where they came from because how would we bear it if he didn’t? How would parents tearing down I-81 in a futile effort to arrive in time to save their children begin to comprehend what had happened? How would they survive without their beautiful sons and daughters who had come to Virginia Tech to learn in safety with us?
Earlier that morning, I was sitting in my favorite chair, cradling my cup of tea. The tea was in a mug my husband, Larry, had ordered from some company online. A photo of my former executive assistant, Tammy Shepherd, and me had been glazed into the side. Tammy and I have our arms around each other’s shoulders and we’re grinning at the camera. We became friends during the four years when I served as chair of English. Tammy helped me wade through budget sheets and annual reports; she was a courageous ally when I was meeting with students who were in distress, insisting that she stay close by with her door open, even when I felt that it may be risky for her to do so. “You don’t have a choice,” she would tell me. “I’m staying.”
I was thinking about that evening’s class. That semester, I was teaching my graduate poetry workshop on Mondays from 6:00 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. It had turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling classes I had ever taught. Although I was still codirecting the Creative Writing program, I had stepped down from the position of chair of Virginia Tech’s English department nearly a year before. Now that I was no longer responsible for overseeing a department of fifty professors, more than fifty instructors, seven classified staff, and dozens of graduate students, I had more time to devote to teaching. We were approaching the end of the semester and I needed to make sure that my comments on the drafts of the student poems were helpful.
Outside the weather was unseasonable—blustery, positively mean. A biting wind whipped the field behind our house, and the grass writhed with such synchronized beauty that it looked as if the entire field were underwater. There were even a few snow flurries. The walk from the car park to Shanks Hall where I taught the graduate workshop would be very chilly. I needed to remember to retrieve my winter coat from the back of the closet.
I had risen early that morning with a sense of foreboding. I knew exactly where it came from: I had been consumed with thoughts about Sierra Leone where I had taught at the age of twenty-one. Larry and I had visited the country at the end of 2006, hoping to form partnerships between Sierra Leone and Virginia Tech. It had been something of a personal pilgrimage. I needed to find out if students I had taught, and a family with whom I had been close, had survived the horrifying civil war. The ghosts from that country—the murdered villagers, the amputees who hobbled through the streets begging for food—populated my nightmares. I refused to accept the fact that, in all likelihood, most of the students I had taught as a young woman had been killed or had died by now. It had been nearly thirty years since then, and I hadn’t been much older than they were. The average life span in Sierra Leone even before the war was around forty years old.
In preparation for our trip back to West Africa, I had read firsthand accounts of the slaughter and amputations by rebels, and by children who had been forcibly conscripted into a juvenile army. The horror of what had transpired during a decadelong civil war made the infamous Children’s Crusade seem like a day-care excursion. But when we arrived in Sierra Leone we were greeted by some remarkable news: The family I had been close to had survived. All their children, including the one named after me, had survived also. The family had lost one grandchild. And although it looked likely that many of my former students and their families had not survived the war, some were living safely in places like Guinea or Mali, and a few were said to be in the United States. I had celebrated with old friends and promised new friends we met that we would find a way to do something constructive to help with the rebuilding process. I had an obligation to give something back because it was in Sierra Leone that I learned, like so many of Bessie Head’s female characters, to find abiding joy in simple things. My African students were the ones who had reminded me how precious education was, and how few people around the world had access to it. I had taught in Sierra Leone for two years as a volunteer in the United Kingdom’s VSO program (Voluntary Service Overseas), the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. My Jamaican father had always told my English mother that Africa was home. He was right. In those two years in Sierra Leone I began to comprehend that lasting happiness could be wrung from very little.
Now that I was back in Blacksburg I had to work hard to keep my trip to Sierra Leone in the forefront of my imagination. The contrast between here and there was shocking, and the challenges posed by Sierra Leone’s stuttering postwar economy were profound. It was difficult to know how best to partner with a country so impoverished that it lacked the most basic infrastructure. I had promised myself that I would find a way to do it, but I was concerned that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. The country was even less developed than it had been at the end of the seventies: a local currency that was almost worthless, no trustworthy banks or postal system, no credit cards (the banks in the country had been blacklisted because card numbers routed through the financial system were routinely stolen), appalling slums, a wounded populace, and a fragile government. And yet, in spite of all that, the resilience of the people was inspiring, and their friendliness touched me deeply. When I went back there, I had been welcomed like an old friend. Prior to our journey, Larry and I had joined forces with another professor at Virginia Tech, Ed Smith, who came from Sierra Leone. On a trip home himself, he had met us at Lunghi airport when we had visited. Having Ed as a guide made it a much more productive experience than it would otherwise have been. Upon our return to Blacksburg in January, I found solace in the serenity of the mountains and the peacefulness of the small college town. I had the luxury of recharging my batteries at Virginia Tech before returning refreshed to Sierra Leone for another visit.
I turned on CNN, something I have done habitually since 9/11. I was alone in the house. Larry, a computer systems network engineer and a classified staff person in the chemistry department at Virginia Tech, was working in the electronics shop in Davidson Hall. His office cubicle faces the Drillfield, the most recognizable feature of the Tech campus. He has a wonderful view out onto the center of campus at one side of the Drillfield, which functions as both hub and gathering place for students. The huge common area of grass and footpaths is where students throw Frisbees during the warmer months or hurry to class from their dorms located on the other side of the Drillfield from most of the classroom and administrative buildings. Burruss Hall dominates, with its castlelike appearance and its multicolored limestone facade, sitting majestically at the top of an imposing flight of stone steps. This is the seat of Virginia Tech’s central administration—where the offices of the president, the provost, the treasurer, the vice presidents, the vice provosts, and other administrators are located.
Suddenly CNN was showing a map of Virginia. It took me a moment to realize that Blacksburg was being highlighted. Something was going on— a shooting incident on campus. Two people had been found dead.
The incident echoed a tragedy we had experienced eight months earlier. The previous August, on the first day of the fall semester, a gunman had been on the loose near campus. William Morva had shot and killed two people—hospital security guard Derrick McFarland on Sunday, August 20, and then, on Monday morning, Deputy Sheriff Eric Sutphin. He had also wounded another deputy sheriff. During that incident the administration had imposed a lockdown. It had been deemed too risky to do business as usual when no one knew exactly where the gunman was. Unaware that a gunman was on the loose, Larry and I had spent part of that August morning on an errand. We hadn’t checked our e-mail and so had no idea what was going on. As we had driven along deserted streets we had congratulated ourselves for selecting a time when no one was out and about.
The double homicide committed by William Morva had shaken the close- knit community. Although a crime like this was not unprecedented, it involved a resident who had been educated locally. A lot of people knew the perpetrator, and many knew the victims, so the crime touched a personal chord in the community.
By April 2007, a mere eight months had passed since the Morva shootings; they were still fresh in everyone’s mind. Some of those who knew Morva claimed that he hadn’t shown any sign of aggressive behavior. Others felt differently, telling reporters that he had made them decidedly uncomfortable. The community responded to the tragedy in the way rural communities do when people in their midst have been harmed. There were benefits for the victims’ families and memorial services. In smaller rural communities like Blacksburg and neighboring Christiansburg, each death is personal.
A gunman was on the loose again. It seemed as if we were about to relive what had become known as the “Morva incident.” There were alarming reports coming into CNN of students hearing shots and seeing other students leaping from a classroom in Norris Hall. By now it was midmorning, the campus was in lockdown, and there were some horrifying rumors swirling around. Friends who monitored police channels were reporting a death toll that sounded too high to be credible. I reminded myself that people were prone to exaggeration during times of crisis. There had been bomb threats recently that had resulted in the closure of campus. The threats had been left in three different buildings but had turned out to be hoaxes. Maybe these incidents were related.
The first two victims—who had originally been characterized by reporters as victims of “domestic violence” or a “murder-suicide”—had been found in West Ambler Johnston, a residence hall on the other side of the Drillfield from Burruss. The Virginia Tech administration had inexplicably delayed notifying the campus by e-mail of the double homicide, and the fact that a gunman could potentially be on the loose. My heart went out to the families and friends of the two dead students.
I called the English department and spoke with Carolyn Rude, a close friend and the person who succeeded me as department chair in English. I also spoke with Tammy Shepherd, who was now serving as Carolyn’s executive assistant. They were both on campus in Shanks and therefore in lockdown. I updated them about what I was hearing on the news. I flicked from CNN to WDBJ-7, the local channel out of Roanoke, which was doing a thorough job of covering the incident and already had reporters on the scene. I asked Tammy to find out if there were English classes being taught over in Norris Hall. She checked the roster of classes. We were relieved to discover that there didn’t seem to be any English faculty or TAs teaching in Norris that morning.
I called Larry. He was, as always, calm. “Don’t go outside,” I said to him needlessly. “They haven’t found the shooter yet.” Larry told me he could see the emergency personnel swarming towards Burruss. Ambulances and police cars were everywhere. “Stay away from the window!” I told him, furious that he was close enough to see anything.
The news was contradictory at first. In interviews with reporters, students spoke again of seeing people jumping from the windows of Norris Hall. The anchors on the local and national TV stations seemed to doubt these accounts, seemed to assume that the students were exaggerating. I can’t recall the exact moment when I learned that this tragedy wasn’t going to duplicate the one that had occurred in August, that it would be a grotesque enlargement of the homicides we’d seen then. But Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum wasn’t the first to say the number twenty, just the first to confirm it. Hearing it from him was what made it real. Friends who had told it to friends who had recited the number to me over the phone could have been wrong. But now it was certain. The scale of the carnage was obscene.