I’ve been shaken to my core by the Virginia Tech shooting, and that is something that’s very hard for me to admit. Normally, I get really annoyed by people who try to insert themselves into major tragedies. For instance, on 9/11, I was a first-year RD. I had gone through crisis training, but this was something for which none of us could have been prepared. Still, I had to remain calm to help my staff and students through something that was so incomprehensible. I didn’t cry until weeks afterward.  On the other hand, one of my colleagues locked herself in her office and bawled while watching CNN, which of course played the video of the two planes crashing into the towers on an endless loop. Nevermind the fact that we were in a helping profession and there were students who needed help and assurance and just someone to talk to. Nevermind that they were terrified 18 year olds who had been in college for less than two weeks and she was nearly 30 and had a job to do. Because I was one of her closest friends on staff, I was sent in to talk to her. I was sure, from her reaction, that she had lost someone close to her in this tragedy, and I went in ready to console her. When I found out that she didn’t, that her family and friends were safe, I felt myself harden inside. Here I was, comforting her, when I should have been helping students. We were hired to be the authority in these situations–what was her problem?

A few years later, my parents came to visit me while I was working in another housing job. My dad and I had been fighting all day because a miscommunication with my mom meant that I found myself without car insurance. That night, a young woman in my residence hall had been sexually assaulted. I briefed my parents, who had been waiting to go to dinner with me, and then gave them a number for a pizza place. My dad said to me, “I don’t understand how you can be so calm and authoritative in a situation like this and burst into tears over the whole car insurance thing.” It hit me then that I had become very good at compartmentalizing my feelings in times of crisis. I had learned to put my students and their needs first–and taking care of myself later. (This particular incident spurred me to go into counseling so that I would have an appropriate outlet for the residual effects once the crisis was over.)

So here we are, just a few days after what the media calls the “Virginia Tech Massacre,” and I have become that thing I hate. I have watched every single morsel of Oprah’s coverage and the tapes that were sent to NBC. I’ve combed all of the victims’ profiles in the New York Times for the saddest details. I randomly burst into tears in the Target yesterday afternoon. (Yet when I saw that some people on the bulletin boards saying, “This could just as easily have been me… My husband is a professor at X college in California!!!”–I still get angry because, no, it could not just as easily have been you unless you were in Blacksburg that day.)

And I guess my emotional response is so great–and so uncontrollable–because I worked in college residence halls for six years. Because there was always some creepy resident that no one liked or wanted to talk to. Because i didn’t make a greater effort to connect with those students. Because I would tell my RAs to call the police rather than put themselves in danger, but praised them when they responded well (and by that I mean, quickly, unemotionally, and without complaint) in tough situations. Because the thought of losing one of my RAs is so unspeakably awful, I can’t even let it bubble up to the top of my brain without having tears spring to my eyes as well. Because I want to call every single one of my former RAs and say, “Don’t die on me. Don’t you ever die on me!”

If I had been the Resident Director in West AJ, I know that I would have stood tall, taken charge, gotten my students to safety, consoled students and staff. I wouldn’t have cried in front of anyone. But after it was all over–after the TV trucks left, after the police tape was removed, after the rest of the world has moved on and expects you to do the same–what then? The sense of loss is so great, it emanates from that place in western Virginia. It is so great, that staff can’t shoulder it alone. So I’ll keep shedding tears for them because I know–it could just as easily have been me.

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