I was… a student of Jocelyne Couture-Nowak

On the morning of April 16, 2007, I crawled down to the foot of my bed and hopped over to my computer desk to check my email around 9:45 a.m. When I tapped in my Virginia Tech email login info, a gray screen read “Fatal Error.” I tried again, and again, and again. I realized the webmail server must have been overwhelmed by students checking email and crashed, so I moved on to catching the morning headlines.

The first: “Two confirmed dead in shooting at Virginia Tech dorm.” I was surprised, but was not terribly concerned. I went downstairs – I was at my parents house in Northern Virginia that semester – and turned on the news, which was then reporting 10 fatalities and possibly dozens injured. I felt my heart racing and I started up on my nervous ticks – pumping my right leg, tugging a tuft of hair on my head – watching this unfold on national television. I paced the living room for hours as the death toll climbed into the 20s, and finally 32, texting and calling friends, hoping everyone was safe.

I had completely lost control of my emotions as I listened to the radio – the news unfolding, victims’ names, statements from officials, that Rihanna song “Umbrella.”

One of the first responses I got was “Heegs was shot.” Heegs was the nickname for a new friend I had met weeks before, Kristina Heeger (now Anderson). Then news that fraternity brothers had not been reached or heard from. It started getting very real at that point. I quickly packed a bag and jumped in the car and headed to Blacksburg. I made a quick stop at the bank before getting on the highway and remember a cheery teller asking how my day had been. I was so angry about that, thinking “where have you been?” I said, “OK,” and got back on the road.

It felt like the longest drive to Blacksburg, but in reality was probably the shortest as I was speeding the entire way. I had completely lost control of my emotions as I listened to the radio – the news unfolding, victims’ names, statements from officials, that Rihanna song “Umbrella.”

When I got to Blacksburg, I learned a much loved French professor of mine, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, affectionately called “Madame,” had been killed in 211 Norris Hall, a classroom I spent many mornings in with her. I couldn’t stop thinking about the energy she had in class, her motherly caring of her students, and the awful thought of how she and her students passed away. I stayed in Blacksburg with friends for over a week, probably sleeping no more than two hours a night, and never two consecutive hours.

Little things that week made me so happy and so extremely sad at the same time: an old woman clad in maroon and orange stopped by me at the gas station and reached in the vehicle to hug me and tell how sorry she was, and that her church had rung their bell 32 times that morning in memory of victims; someone else said “Now there are 32 people in heaven trying to explain to everyone what a Hokie is.” That made me laugh hysterically, and then sob uncontrollably.

After five years, I still don’t understand much of what happened or why. All I know is that I, and I think our entire community, came out of this tragedy with a profound understanding of the transitory nature of our lives.

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