Looking back on a tragedy

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April 18, 2008

3:04 AM

Though once divided by school spirit in a rare football competition, the pilgrimage that many students of the College took to Virginia Tech last fall was a show of solidarity and friendship.

A similar display of unity was shown on the one-year anniversary with various events across the campus.

The Queen’s Guard held watch over the Virginia Tech commemorative wreath at the head of the Sunken Garden, luminaries lit the Crim Dell walk, the Wren bells tolled and students held vigils throughout the day.

While many students of the College were directly or indirectly affected by the tragedy, Sara Clark ’10 experienced the tragedy firsthand. Clark had already decided to transfer to the College before the shootings occurred, though many people assume she was influenced by it, she said. On the contrary, she doesn’t know of anybody who was encouraged to transfer because of the tragedy.

“It brought people together,” she said.

Clark was on her way to a meeting with a professor when the police presence prevented her from crossing campus.

“The whole day was really surreal,” she said. “I guess because I didn’t understand what was going on. I was talking tom my mom on the phone and she kept saying it was bigger than Columbine.”

Just as it did for students of the College, the day brought hours of uncertain worry. “Basically the whole day was waiting,” she said.

For her, the end of the day brought sad news: Two of her hallmates died in the tragedy.

“I got Facebook posts from people I hadn’t heard from since middle school,” she said.

In the days following April 16, Clark saw banners and plaques from schools around the country.

“It meant a lot, meant that people were coming together. I saw the one from U. Va. [The] rivalries were gone.”

She felt this sentiment again on her only return to Tech since last year for the Tribe-Tech football game.

The College prepared to face the one-year anniversary and commemorate the lives of fallen friends at a sister state school as many were affected by the tragedy. Virginia Burk ’10 planned a vigil in the Sunken Garden, having lost her best friend Mary Read in the shootings last year.

“It was one of those deals where you see someone and you realize that you’re going to be friends forever,” she said.

For Burk, the one year anniversary brought back painful memories of the uncertainty that plagued her last year and the devastating news at the end of the day.

“I knew over 30 people who went to Tech, and half of them were really close friends,” Burk said. “I called everyone I knew the number for. Mary was the first person I called and the only person who never picked up.”

The night of the tragedy, she made a Facebook group to keep friends of Read informed. When she found out Read had been killed, she had the task of letting everyone know. “I had promised on the Facebook group that I would contact people when I found out that Mary was okay, and so the only thing I could think of was to call people,” she said. “I kind of hung onto that idea for dear life, and even though I think everyone thought I was making things worse for myself by having to be the bearer of bad news, I think that was the only thing keeping me sane because I had something to do.”

This year, in preparation for the emotions that the one-year anniversary would bring back, Burk made another Facebook group. “I hadn’t heard of anything going on at William and Mary, and I knew that I would want to be somewhere with people that night,” she said about her Sunken Garden vigil. “I also figured that people would want a place where they could talk about their memories of people, and how they are coping.”
Burk said the College went above and beyond in handling her mourning last year.

“William and Mary was amazing. It was a godsend because for the next two months I couldn’t concentrate for longer then 10 minutes without thinking about Mary.”

She appreciates the time and support that the College provided; she has heard of some who weren’t as lucky. “I’ve heard horror stories about my other friends at other schools,” she said. “My friend at U.Va. wasn’t given any type of help.”
Burk has appreciated seeing the maroon and orange shirts since last year.

“I see the shirts that the field hockey team sold everywhere which just makes me so proud to be at William and Mary. I’ve been asked back at home where they can get them,” she said.

Like Burk, Brittany Vallette ’10 lost a childhood friend in the shootings. She felt that the campus’s reaction to the tragedy helped, if even only a little. “In cases like these, there is really nothing that you can do. Everything that was done here was just a little bit of an extra smile for those affected,” she said.

Last year, Scott Brown ’07 spearheaded the sale of 5,000 maroon and orange bracelets to raise money for the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, the College sent a banner to Tech and the field hockey team sold t-shirts with the Tech and College logos side by side.

The College’s Counseling Center, which has made every effort to be available to students, handled the one year anniversary with similar care.

“In all residential campuses, there is a strong ripple effect,” Director of the Counseling Center Dr. Kelly Crace said. “What affects few affects many. That is even more strongly amplified during national and campus tragedies.”

Having handled other national tragedies such as Sept. 11, Crace said the center was prepared to deal with the strong emotions the anniversary would bring. The day may have been difficult for some, but Crace recommended getting involved to help the healing process, as students did in organizing and attending vigils throughout the day.

“The most important thing for them to realize is that it is okay and normal to be affected by the anniversary of a traumatic event,” he said. “We try to normalize their experience, provide a safe place for them to process the range of emotions they are experiencing, and help them develop healthy coping strategies so they can be more accepting of what they are experiencing.”

Despite the efforts to show solidarity and ease the pain, Vallette said that she was really dreading Wednesday.

“The one-year anniversary means a lot of heartache. I understand that people are just trying to show their support, but when everyone wears the Hokie colors, it brings back memories from last year.”

While some students honored the memories of their fallen friends alone, the College campus as a whole united with the Hokies again, just as last year. But, for Burk, Vallette and other students mourning across the campus, the anniversary brought back memories of a day of confusion and pain.

“It means out of 365 days, I haven’t had a single day where I haven’t thought about Mary,” Burk said. “It just makes me think of every single thing that I could have done to spend more time with her, and every day I could have called to tell her that I missed her and I didn’t.”

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