How Hokies Cope With Tragedy

(Getty Images/Scott Olson)
Sarah Birnbaum is a Desk Assistant for CBS News Radio in New York. She's spent the last few days in Blacksburg, Virginia.
On my flight back from Virginia Tech yesterday, I sat next to a 24-year-old booker from CNN. She's a year older than me.

"When I was doing my degree in broadcast journalism, I wish there had been a course called 'Covering Tragedy,'" she told me. "How am I supposed to behave? How am I supposed to go up to people in mourning, and try to talk them into going on air?"

This problem was especially difficult for me, because I wasn't only in Blacksburg as a reporter; my family was in mourning too. My fiancé Brian is a professor at Virginia Tech. He was on sabbatical this semester, but he ordinarily teaches on the second floor of Norris Hall, where the shooting spree took place.

"I keep on picturing my classroom and my students, and what the killer must have looked like when he came through the door," Brian said to me on Monday night. His friend Jamie was teaching in that classroom on Monday morning, and was shot in the head.

Brian and I held a get-together at our house, which was doubling as the CBS Radio Blacksburg Bureau, after the candlelight vigil so that our friends on faculty could get together and talk. "What do we tell our students?" Brian and his colleagues kept on repeating. They didn't have courses in "covering tragedy" either.

So, what did we all do?

The answer I found was that everyone reverted to what was most familiar.

Brian got quiet, while I got motherly, which is how we always deal with difficult events. The first thing out of my mouth to everyone I interviewed was "Are you o.k.?"

Parents got protective. The parents I spoke to were mostly angry – angry at the school, angry that there was no procedure in place to protect their children in case something like this should happen.

The campus seemed to revert back too – it felt like summer break. Before I began working as a desk assistant for CBS News in June, I spent summers with Brian on campus. Blacksburg is quiet in the summer, with only a few students walking around and a couple of dozen cars on the road. The weather is warm but not too hot, and cows are grazing in the fields just outside campus. On the Tuesday after the shooting happened, the weather in Blacksburg was lovely. It was in the 70's, and the sun was out. Many students had gone home and things were pretty quiet (with the exception of the inn where the press was stationed). It was discordant that after such a tragedy it would feel like summertime, but natural too, since that is the Virginia Tech I'm most familiar with.

The student body also fell back on what was most natural. It leaned on football traditions. At the convocation where President Bush spoke on Tuesday, kids turned out in their school colors and at one point in the ceremony, the crowd burst into a football cheer. On the one hand, the response didn't fit the occasion. But on the other, it was the most familiar group ritual the students have. It's the way Hokies express cohesion. It's the way Hokies cover tragedy.