Sunday, April 22, 2007

Back in the Saddle

I drove back from New York today. It was wonderful spending a few days with the wife and George, not to mention seeing my sister Jen, her fiance, and my godmother. Misanthropster and I played tourist on the south end of Manhattan, and she helped iron out a few of my creases, putting up with my occasional bursts of crankiness. It was amazing reconnecting with my daughter, who has really grown up in the last month. She has a wonderful, wicked sense of humor, and got a real kick out of testing boundaries with daddy. I was too happy to get up in arms about her silliness.

On my first morning in New York, I went out to move the car, as the street sweeper was running through my godmother's neighborhood. After parking the car a few blocks away, I walked back to the apartment. Along the way, a dog almost tripped me with his leash. His owner looked at me with big eyes and apologized profusely. I wondered why she was so apologetic until I looked down and realized that I was wearing a Tech sweatshirt. This happened a few other times, but it always took me by surprise. I was amazed that, even in a city as big as New York, people were still so quick to console.

Of course, some people took this for granted. Misanthropster and I noticed a homeless man was wearing a Virginia Tech sweatshirt to elicit sympathy. To be honest, however, it is quite possible that he was an actual Tech graduate. My bet would be that he majored in Philosophy or English.

I drove back from New York in record time. When I stopped off for gas in southern Pennsylvania, a man at one of the other pumps nodded at the magnetic VT decals on the side of my car and said "Nice." I told him that I taught at Virginia Tech. He asked me if I knew the killer and I said him that I didn't. He shook his head.

Once I entered Virginia, I noticed things starting to change. The first thing was that the highway warning signs were all flashing the same message: "Welcome Virginia Tech. Drive Safely." Every thirty miles or so, I'd see another one of these signs and think about the fact that the cars around me were filled with Tech students who were traveling South, unsure about what the next few weeks are going to hold.

At Harrisonburg, where James Madison University is situated, the students decorated one of the highway overpasses with orange and maroon fabric, a la Christo's Central Park installation. It was a beautiful gesture from a rival school, and I found myself getting back into the pride tinged with melancholy that I felt before I left town. I had the same feeling when I passed the Days Inn located north of Staunton, whose sign flashed the following message:

Great Rooms
Great Rates
God Bless the Hokies

In the entire trip, I only saw one car pulled over. I wonder if the police were taking it easy on the Tech traffic. Regardless, the cars around me were showing the grim determination that characterizes the school. I don't know if everyone is eager to go back or is dreading it, but I do know that they were hell-bent for leather, driving at top speed to return to Blacksburg. As I passed cars, I noticed messages written on the windows in orange electrical tape: "Hokie Nation," "Hokies Forever," and "We Are Virginia Tech." Unlike the shallow rah-rah that usually characterizes Virginia Tech, this touched me, not least because it shows some of the determination and pride that, at its best, is one of Tech's greatest trademarks.

Driving down Route 460 into Christiansburg, I noticed a car pulled over to the side of the road. A young man was sitting on the ground, crying, while his friend hugged him. I'm proud of the students of Tech. They're dealing with some of the hardest emotions that they will ever have to digest, and they're helping each other deal with loss.

I'm worried about what I'm going to say when class starts tomorrow. I always have a friendly banter with my students, and I generally try to help them address the current problems in their world. Simply speaking, I don't know what I can say, what words I can use, to help them make sense of this tragedy. I don't know if even discussing it is presumptuous. I thought about this on the drive down, and I have a few ideas, but I'm still nervous.

Last night, I had a nightmare. I dreamed that it was tomorrow, and that I was trying to help my students finish out the semester. I was teaching in Whittemore, one of the big lecture halls that seats 300 people, and the room was dimly lit. As I tried to talk, the lights flickered and I saw my students faces covered in thick white pancake makeup, like Japanese Noh theater. Their hair was dark and oily. They began to squawk like crows, and the shadowy outlines of their bodies looked like slick black feathers. As I tried to calm them down, they got increasingly distressed and started squawking more and more loudly. I finally woke up. I looked up at the ceiling for a little while and finally snuggled into my wife's back. I fell asleep a few minutes later.

Of course, having listened to Dane Cook recently, I realize that the dream means that I'm a deeply closeted homosexual. Did I mention the crab?

The nightmare was actually somewhat reassuring. Regardless of what happens tomorrow, I can guarantee that my students won't be turning into birds. I can deal with just about everything else.

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  • As childish as it might be, seeing that cartoon image rushed all my emotions back in full force for a moment. It's such an accurate representation of everyone coming together.

    You'll be okay, I'm sure the students need to see you as much as you need to see them, it'll only be a good thing. Love ya man.

    By Blogger tokenscot, At April 22, 2007 at 11:59 PM  

  • I hope you will find a way to find some positive meaning in terms of life, and living it to the fullest from the sadness that has happened. It's good to see you in print again.

    By Blogger The CEO, At April 23, 2007 at 1:15 AM  

  • Good luck with going back...and don't even try to make sense of it...there is none!!! Just feel the feelings...and keep putting one foot in front of the other and go forward.....with love.

    By Blogger Odat, At April 23, 2007 at 6:13 AM  

  • Tokenscot-
    Thanks. And thanks. You know what fer.

    I'm working on it. Thanks for the positive feedback--all of it.

    You're right, of course, but I also feel the need to give my kids some way to start wrapping their minds around this. I want to help them move forward from here.

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 23, 2007 at 7:25 AM  

  • Crankster
    When the heart grieves over what is lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left. I hope your students , collegues and people of your community find the strength to move forward no matter how slow and crippling a fete it is.

    By Blogger Judith, At April 23, 2007 at 7:32 AM  

  • The City has become a much more empathitic place to be. It's nice to know that you are moving to a caring area even though it's a different place than you are used to.

    I'm sure you and your students will get back into a good rhythm once you are in front of them. You'll do well especially because you are concerned about it.

    There is nothing better than the ability to roll over in the night to the comfort of the person who loves you most.

    I have terrible nightmares and just waking to have Bill there to snuggle into is one of my favorite things.

    By Blogger Pickled Olives, At April 23, 2007 at 8:17 AM  

  • It is heartening to see flashes of your wicked sense of humour peeping through. I was a bit worried about you but to be honest, I think you'll be fine.

    As teachers, it is easy to feel responsible for our charges, but often, simply being ourselves is enough for them - it is, after all, what they look up to us for.

    I hope all goes well on your return to work.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At April 23, 2007 at 8:27 AM  

  • Jude-
    "When the heart grieves over what is lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left."

    Wow. What a perfect quote. Thank you.

    You're right about New York. It pretty much blows me away. Ditto the nightmares. The cats try to offer consolation, but it is too often tinged with a deep desire to be petted.

    "Wicked humor"? Moi?

    Thank you for the reassurance.

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 23, 2007 at 8:45 AM  

  • And I particularly liked how they were all eager to get back to class this week....

    By Blogger Matt, At April 23, 2007 at 9:56 AM  

  • my thoughts and prayers are with all of you at VT!!

    By Blogger Kendra, At April 23, 2007 at 4:37 PM  

  • I think it would be hard to stand in front of thirty traumatized young people in a classroom setting and say something. The first five minutes would be brutal...

    Good luck with that...

    And again, condolences to the entire community.

    By Blogger Scott from Oregon, At April 23, 2007 at 10:42 PM  

  • I can't imagine what this week will be like for you all, but our thoughts are all with you.

    Best of luck to you, your students and your colleagues.

    By Blogger Mystic Wing, At April 24, 2007 at 8:26 AM  

  • Matt-
    Yeah, it was pretty amazing. The students bordered on eager!

    Thank you so much. And thanks for visiting.

    It was better than expected. And thanks for your thoughts.

    Mystic Wing-
    Thank you!

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 24, 2007 at 12:24 PM  

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