Outside, Looking In

Reflections on tragedy and Virginia Tech.

When something awful happens, people rush to talk about their cousin or the friend of a friend who saw it all — sort of like a fourth grade class discussion where everyone wants to contribute, if only in a tangential way. Where what starts as an examination of the anatomy of frogs turns rapidly into a discussion of how yucky frogs are or who has had one as a pet or who supposedly drowned in the frog pond many years ago.

This used to horrify me. How could people be so needy that they had to insinuate themselves into a story, no matter where it happened? They are safe and out of the fray. Yet they wanted to take on the tragedy as if it were their own — as if it were a kind of emotional amusement park for which they desperately needed a ticket.

Now I think I get it.

People are trying on a story, practicing for that inevitably disastrous time ahead of them. Just like little kids trying on the persona of the heroes of the stories they read and the games they play, people are pretending, in some way, that this tragedy didn’t just happen somewhere else to someone else. It happened to them. It will happen to them. And they better get used to it now, in a safe way, because when it happens to them, there will be no such haven. There will be screams and blood and the awfulness of things gone drastically awry. There will be cameras and reporters and everyday people trying to be a part of their story as well.

And, secretly, at night, I do it as well.

I remember a place called VPI (the letters stand for Virginia Polytechnical Institute; we never used the full name). It was full of engineers and ROTC guys and people good in math — so different from the mannerly school where I went, where young women majored in home ec and finding a husband, not necessarily in that order. VPI was serious stuff. They had football and very few gracefully Georgian dormitories.

I remember a fall weekend visiting a friend who had married into the Hokie family. Nothing seemed fun for her. She had to make special dinners for her husband and take math classes as well. It seemed like so much of an ending.

And I remember the VPI vet school, where I learned that my year-old pup was hopeless. He would never be right, they said. I could have put him down. He could have been buried right there. Near the drill field and West AJ and Norris Hall.

I was there before. I was there now. We all were.

Article © 2007 by Ann Klimas