BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech held its 9:05 a.m. classes as usual on Monday. Professors collected homework, passed out quizzes and launched into lectures. Students discussed the role of entertainment in society, took notes on the emancipation of slaves and solved polynomials.
The quest for normalcy on this morning, on this campus, was especially striking. It was the first time since 2007 that Virginia Tech held classes on April 16.
During the same class period five years ago, a senior English major with a history of mental health problems went on a shooting rampage in Norris Hall. Seung Hui Cho walked from classroom to classroom, firing more than 170 shots in about 10 minutes. He killed 32 people on April 16, 2007, counting two victims shot earlier that morning in a dormitory. Then he killed himself.
Virginia Tech Provost Mark G. McNamee said the resumption of academic routine Monday was a tribute to the 27 students and five faculty members killed five years ago. Each had a deep love for learning that led to grand dreams for the future and a desire to make a difference in the world, he said.
“One way to remember them is to go to class,” McNamee said. “That’s what they were doing, and that’s what we live for.”
Each professor was allowed to mark the day however he or she felt comfortable. Some observed a moment of silence at the beginning of class, while others went ahead with lessons as planned. A few canceled class. Others devoted the period to discussing what they had experienced five years before.
Classics instructor Trudy Harrington Becker moved her morning class outside, beneath a century-old oak tree a few yards from a memorial to the victims of the massacre. Instead of discussing the role of ancient Greek and Roman women, Becker asked the students to get to know one another by sharing odd facts about themselves or stories that reflect their personalities outside of class.
The 2007 massacre pushed many faculty members to take a more active role in the lives of students and encourage students to look out for each other, Becker said after class. Cho was described after his death as a quiet, friendless outsider.
As the class wrapped up, Becker told her students: “Have a good day. Take care of each other.”
It was 9:52 a.m., close to the time that Cho killed himself in 2007.
Community-building was a key goal of those organizing memorial events for the fifth anniversary. There was a 3.2-mile run Saturday in honor of the 32 victims, along with a picnic for local rescue and public safety workers. There were also open houses and art shows. At lunchtime Monday, thousands of students came to the Drillfield, a grassy quad in the heart of campus, for free pizza.
“It’s a great way for people to sit there for a moment and reflect,” said Emily Schaefer, 21, a student government representative who planned the picnic.
The gathering had a lighthearted feel, as students sat on picnic blankets, listened to upbeat music and played lawn games. At the nearby memorial, the vibe was quieter and emotions stronger.
Early Monday, just after midnight, a few hundred students and others gathered at the same site to watch cadets light a ceremonial candle. The candle continued to burn throughout the day, as a line of people stopped by the memorial to read the names of victims or leave flowers.
Just as Virginia Tech has done since 2007, the community also planned a candlelight vigil on Monday evening. While the glow of candles looks the same from year to year, change is as constant on this campus as on any other.
Faculty and top administration have stayed mostly the same over the past five years, but the undergraduate student body has completely turned over. Today’s students were in high school when the shootings occurred.
“I think we are beyond the point where there are a lot of students here who were here then,” said Brian Datri, 20, a sophomore math major from New Jersey. He attended four classes Monday — “kind of like any other day,” he said.
Some of the most painful reminders of the 2007 massacre are gone. The dorm where the first two victims were killed, West Ambler Johnston Hall, is being renovated and will reopen this fall as a “residential college” with an emphasis on building a community of students who choose to live in the same hall for several years.
The second floor of Norris Hall was closed off for many months, then dramatically remodeled. Nondescript tile and white walls have been replaced with light wood, soft glass and warm lighting. The hall is now home to the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.
Still, thousands of students attended remembrance events Monday, connecting them to the school’s not-so-distant history. Some said they had older siblings or relatives on campus in 2007. Others said they could simply identify with being a student sitting in a classroom that’s assumed to be safe.
“It was a big day for everyone, whether you were here or not,” said Katie Caruthers, 19, a freshman nutrition major from Caroline County, Va. “We’re all like a big family.”