This is not a story about irony
It is not my intention to talk about irony.
On this particular day I feel a need to talk about Virginia Tech, and to tell a story about the time I spent there. But I want to make it extremely clear that I do not consider this story to be ironic. Neither is it poetic or instructive. It is certainly not uplifting.
Nonetheless, it happens to be true, and for that reason alone it feels important enough to relate.
Today’s post is of course entirely outside the normal scope of this blog. Feel free to skip past it if you like.
On the first day of my senior year at Virginia Tech, August 21, 2006, there was a manhunt. The campus was locked down and we were all ordered to stay home as hundreds of policemen swarmed around the school grounds. I remember feeling mildly annoyed.
Of course, annoyance was not my primary emotion a few days later, when I found out what had actually happened. A prisoner had escaped from a nearby hospital and gone into hiding along the beautiful wooded trail between the hospital and the campus. In the process he had killed two people. I later met both of their families: they had wives and pretty young daughters.
As it turns out, I knew the prisoner also. His name was William Morva, and I had met him during my freshman year flirtations with liberalism and war protesting. He was a young guy, about my age, who showed up without fail to all the liberal events on campus (and there were a lot of them during the year leading up to the Iraq war). I remember him for his almost religious enthusiasm and his relentless, semi-demented smile. I remember him standing behind a lectern wearing his cab driver hat and demanding accountability from some poor member of the Young Republicans club. I remember watching him dance in front of the community theater while someone played the djembe. I didn’t know at the time that he was homeless (a lot of people were going for that look). I also didn’t know that he had the capacity to kill people.
The police eventually found him, of course. He was curled up on the ground inside a bush, stripped down to his boxer shorts. He’s in prison now, awaiting execution.
Anyway, the story I mean to tell is not about murderers. It’s about a different guy I knew during my senior year at Virginia Tech, a sophomore named “Paul” (this is a fake name, since I have no right to speak about the real person).
Paul and I were classmates in Nikki Giovanni‘s Introduction to Creative Writing class during the fall semester of 2006. We were by no means real friends; our acquaintanceship was only at the level of saying hello when we passed each other on campus. Nonetheless, we knew each other better than most acquaintances, since we each listened to the other read fairly personal essays on a semi-weekly basis.
Paul was a serious guy. That’s not entirely true. Paul was a guy who felt a great responsibility in life to be serious. Much more than most people his age (or any age), Paul seemed to have a clear ideal of the man he wanted to become: that man was competent, deliberate, and upright. Despite his purposefulness, though, Paul seemed to have as much capacity for simple, boyish happiness as anyone else. Most of the time during class he would be sitting up straight in his chair, listening stoically. But every now and then something would make him laugh, and in those moments it became clear that he would be a great guy to share a joke with. To say that a person’s smile is “infectious” is pretty trite; I’ll just say that Paul had a smile that was disarmingly genuine.
Perhaps I am projecting things onto Paul, but that’s how I remember it.
Many of the world’s more intense people, it seems to me, have conversion stories; I have one or two of my own. Paul’s particular conversion was to military service. As a very young man (middle school age, as I remember), Paul had felt strongly moved by the call to protect his country by joining the military. Since that age he had taken every opportunity to follow the path that would best prepare him for the life of a military officer. I think that’s part of what drew Paul to Virginia Tech: the chance to join the Corps of Cadets, Virginia Tech’s academy-style military training program. I know that the promise of military authority can sometimes attract unpleasant people (believe me, I spent most of my childhood on military bases), but Paul’s feelings about its importance were genuine, and they were a recurring theme in his writing.
When I think about Paul as I knew him during that semester, the following fact stands out to me: In the days after the manhunt of August 21, 2006, Paul was angry. His anger stemmed not from the violence itself or from how the situation was handled, but from his own inability to help anyone while it was taking place. I remember him venting that anger during the class’s first writing assignment. I remember, with surprising clarity, how he said that he had joined the Corps for the one goal of helping to protect people during dangerous times. And then, he said, when such a time came he was ordered to stay inside his dorm room and just wait for news of how it all ended. I remember how he was frustrated to the point of rage.
Paul is dead now. He was one of thirty-two people killed during the shootings at Virginia Tech that next semester.
I remember sitting inside my apartment on April 16, 2007, infuriatingly helpless, waiting to hear news of how it all ended.
I don’t know anything about what Paul’s life was like during that last semester, or during those last few days or those last few minutes. I don’t know how he felt in that terrible moment when the situation became clear to the students inside that classroom. I don’t know what actions he took. I don’t know anything. And I don’t care to fill the holes in my knowledge with my own imagination.
But I will say this: I reject, categorically, the idea that Paul’s death forms part of some larger narrative. I refuse to call it ironic or poetic. I refuse to imagine God, watching the scene from above with a sad smile, knowing that this is part of some larger plan. The idea of someone describing that moment using the words “purpose” or “reason” makes me furious.
But I don’t know what better words to use.
And in that sense, there’s no point at all to this story, since I refuse to believe that there was any point in Paul’s death. I don’t know why I’m writing this all down, or why I’m calling it a “story”. I feel guilty for stringing the words together in a particular order as if to say that things make sense if you look at them in a particular way.
But on this particular day I feel a need to say something that I know is true. And at the moment all I have is this: I wish that Paul were not dead.