I'm sitting here at my desk, finishing edits to an important document and watching the Virginia Tech convocation stream over CBS News. This sounds terribly crass and clueless, but I didn't really get the full scale of it until I spoke with my mom last night. Like me, she works on a college campus, but unlike me, she works on a typical college campus. The kind with lots of sprawling green spaces and undergrads in flannel pajama pants who take the bus to 8 AM classes. An actual quad where people play frisbee golf in between lectures. Where internships are pretty much only for summer and people go to frat parties with crappy campus bands, not one of the few schools in the country that actually had a campus lock-down plan before 9/11 (thank you so much, IMF riots). She works at a school that is like the school she worked at when I was a child.
My mother does not typically get unglued. But last night, as she talked about the shootings at Virginia Tech, she sounded more freaked out than when she called me to tell me my father was in the ER.
College is a rarified time and space for almost everyone who goes, a safe chunk away from real life tedium and drudgery. It's lazy Tuesday afternoons watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force mixed with genuine excitement at actually acquiring knowledge, practically feeling the new wrinkles in your brain being formed. It's an enormous privilege and responsibility, and I know for me, it was the time in my life I most looked forward to. It's mistakes and successes and tears and finding passion and having the safety to screw it all up and start over.
It comes down to safety. The fun and chance of discovery aren't possible without knowing that, within reason, you are protected from yourself and from others. Growing pains aren't just allowed, they're expected. How many other times have there been so many bodies- academic, financial, personal, medical, social, political- dedicated to making sure we get where we need to go and get there in one piece?
They all together create an atmosphere of freedom that is uniquely and unmistakably collegiate. Growing up on a college campus, I was always thrilled when my mother took me into the dorms where she worked with students or let me tag along as she directed teams of students at their summer jobs leading tour groups and welcoming new freshmen. Even as a little kid, I got a contact high off the collective giddiness, the idea that they were at the beginning of something new and huge and scary and that they couldn't wait to stumble out of the starting block. Those memories are a big part of why I'm still in higher education today.
I know what she felt, and what I'm starting to let myself feel, is not just sympathy for the Virginia Tech family. Something even bigger than their campus community was damaged on Monday. The idea of a college or university somehow set apart from the "real world" is gone. There's a real sense of a sacred space being violated, and to me it somehow feels even scarier than another Columbine or a workplace shooting because I know, rationally, that there is nothing that can be done to stop something like it from happening again.
How do you stop a madman that is determined to destroy his surroundings? If you have the benefit of a single building with doors that lock and exits that can be guarded, there are ways. There are ID cards that swipe you into buildings and key-in code touch pads and lots of armed security guards. But on a college campus? You can't do it without violating in turn the physical freedoms of the campus.
Don't be quick to dismiss these. The freedom to wander and explore and try on new ideas and identities, to change your mind and change it back again. It's a literal physical freedom, too-- on a college campus, pretty much anyone can wander anywhere and do whatever they want. How many of you had an out-of-the-way place you thought of as "yours," whether for studying or sex or just being, reveling in all of delicious little discoveries you were making every day? If you had to swipe a key card to get where you needed to go, were restricted to only those places that were deemed essential, then how could you make your campus your own?
I'm not trying to pretend that universities are still idyllic ponds of utopian peace. Any naive notions of that were gone by the time the National Guard stationed a tank outside my sophomore year residence hall. But I still have an idea in my head of the possibility of a campus away from a city, where news cameras only show up to document student protests on janitors' rights and classes meet under trees when the weather is nice. A campus like the university of my childhood, or what Virginia Tech seemed to be and hopefully will be again soon. I'm so deeply sorry for what their community must be going through. I really can't begin to imagine what this feels like.