When a School Learns to Mourn

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Win McNamee / Getty

Virginia Tech students comfort one another during during a convocation ceremony at Cassell Coliseum a day after a gunman shot and killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself April 17, 2007, in Blacksburg, Viriginia.

The President flew from Washington to Blacksburg in southwestern Virginia for the convocation at Virginia Tech on Tuesday, assuming the role of "comforter-in-chief" in the words of aides whose nostalgia for his post-9/11 popularity was a little too evident under the circumstances. But the story turned out not to be about him at all. Instead it was about the contrast between the real, painful grief visible among the relatives of the dead on the campus, and the eerie, slightly confused process of grieving that the rest of the community was going through.

Bush left Andrews on Air Force One under low, leaden skies and landed at Roanoke under high, blue ones. Where Washington was cold and still wintry, the countryside between Roanoke and Blacksburg, viewed below on the helicopter ride to the Virginia Tech campus, was basking in sun and warm air. The contrast continued in Blacksburg, where the massive auditorium seemed ready not for a memorial, but for a college basketball game. It was packed to the rafters with chatting students, most in orange or maroon shirts or hoodies bearing the Virginia Tech logo. The rafters themselves were hung with banners from previous years' basketball victories, and pictures of famous Hokie players from years past. State Senator John Edwards, whose district comprises Blacksburg, worked the front row, shaking hands with U.S. Senators John Warner and Jim Webb and most of the state's U.S. House members. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

At 1:42 p.m. the colors arrived in the Coliseum and the crowd stood and went silent. When the flags arrived at the back of the arena, the crowd sat. Very distraught relatives of the dead were brought to random open seats around the auditorium. They were not fancy people. Some were in jeans, some in sunglasses; the kids carried backpacks. Most of the grieving families consisted of multiple generations: parents, siblings and grandparents. One very sad couple, fighting back tears, arrived alone and was shown to their seats. There was the uniform clatter of seats as Bush came in and the crowd stood up again. Everyone watched as the colors were posted by the dais.

The wife of the lonely couple sat up straight, then bowed over and wept softly into her handkerchief every 15 seconds or so, her earrings shaking silently as she cried. The husband held fast, staring forward blankly. Then he bent over and pressed his mouth into his handkerchief, a look of desperation flashing in his eyes between sobs.

When the president of the university stood to talk he received a standing ovation. He said, "Words are weak symbols of our feelings at times like this." Governor Tim Kaine spoke effectively. When he said nothing could make up for losing a son or daughter, the wife of the lonely couple broke down quietly again. Kaine introduced Bush as a man who knows that one of his jobs is to provide comfort in times of crisis. And the President took the podium.

He received a standing ovation from the crowd. And his ability to be genuinely sympathetic carried him through the first few minutes of the speech. Then he went flat, emotionally. But his words still had force. The general audience was focused closely on him. The lonely couple watched and cried when he said things that cut them, as when he urged the community to look after those whose sons and daughters would never come back. Or when he said of the dead, "Now they're gone." At that, the husband leaned hard onto his fist. "A parent's love is never far from a child," the President said and they both broke down, then sat back up. "Reach out to help those who have lost a son or daughter," he said. And they sobbed.

The couple stared blankly through most of the four religious statements, but cried when the Buddhist extolled the incomparable preciousness of the individual human life and when the head of the local Hillel center read Ecclesiastes — "to everything there is a season..." It was heart-rending to watch.

And it was all the more so for the contrast with the crowd around them. Here was true, inexpressible grief surrounded by something sincere but much different: a massive auditorium that wanted to express outrage and sadness, but was overwhelmed by neither; 10,000 genuinely distraught but emotionally uncertain young people. The eeriness of the stadium overpowered the scene. There were thousands of kids filling their home team's sports arena looking to mourn but dressed for a ballgame, all while quiet, small agonies were going on in their midst.

And everyone felt it. When English Professor and resident poet Nikki Giovanni delivered her final comments, it was not clear how her assertions of strength and unity were being received. There was a dangerous undercurrent throughout, a feeling that the professor was striking not quite the right note when she said, "We are Virginia Tech." And when she said that there was tragedy everywhere, including when an elephant was killed for its ivory or a child was killed by a rolling boulder it was hard to tell if she'd quite captured what the crowd was searching for. And as she let loose with her final assertion — "We will prevail! We will prevail! We will prevail!" — there was a terrifying split-second when no one clapped, and you could feel a sudden fear run through the place, that the community hadn't, in fact, come together, that they wouldn't prevail.

And then the applause broke loud and sustained. And when it faded a few students started with the chant: "Let's Go Hokies!" and it carried the stadium. It was both powerful and somehow spooky — as if the cheers of a basketball game had been overlaid on top of the deaths of 33 very real, terribly important young people because the community needed to feel united. It was a genuine need, but it was something different from the real grieving going on in their midst.

For their part, the lonely couple didn't seem any more upset after the chanting than they had been before. After Bush and his entourage had filed out to a back room, the couple rose, held hands and walked out, she crying, he biting his lip. They were escorted to a back room where Bush and the First Lady were meeting with survivors. Bush hugged them and consoled them. And he learned that they were one of two couples that had lost their only child, a son.