Virginia Tech history professor Woody Farrar is usually able to lecture for hours, but this time he worried about what he would say – if he could even get the words out – when his students returned to his class Monday, a week after the worst shooting in US history took place on campus.
"On one hand, I feel assaulted, like someone came into my house and trashed it," says Mr. Farrar, who specializes in sports and military history. "On the other hand, this was like a tornado come down out of the sky, unpredictable and random."
He's one of hundreds of teachers struggling to come up with words to greet returning students whose lives were turned upside down when a troubled English major and fellow classmate started shooting in the West Ambler Johnston dorm last Monday, killing two students. Cho Seung-Hui then fired more than 100 shots in Norris Hall, killing five teachers and 26 more students, including himself.
"We're all kind of visualizing: What am I going to do when I walk into class?" says Carol Burger, a women's studies professor on campus. "We're trying to be ready for anything and follow the students' lead." In the past, schools have shut down for various lengths of time after a campus tragedy occurred. Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, closed for six weeks after four antiwar protester students were killed by National Guard troops in 1970. Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., didn't reopen for two weeks after two students killed 15 people including themselves in 1999.
But a yearning for normalcy, as well as an urgency to reconnect with students before the semester ends on May 3, prompted the Virginia Tech administration to resume classes only a week after the shootings.
It will be a difficult transition, for sure. Some 300 students, by some estimates, were directly involved in the incident, possibly leaving them with emotional traumas. But thousands of others felt just as "violated," Farrar says.
Lawrence Johnson, a senior majoring in sociology, says crunching data for a paper took four hours at a study session last week when it should have taken a half hour. "People are just distracted; you can't think," he says.
In hastily called department meetings last week, professors argued over whether it was too early to return to class. Should they forge ahead with vigor? Or talk to students individually for the rest of the semester to help them deal with the tragedy? But administrators reasoned that cancelling the rest of the school year seemed overly alarmist.
Instead, the school is urging professors to open each class with a 20-minute discussion before moving on to regular class work. Some teachers say they'll try to engage students in conversation; others will let students dictate what happens in class.
Put event in historical perspective
Class discussions are likely to focus on several issues, including the event's meaning, the psychology of a killer's mind, and the nature of grief, professors say.
"I'm going to try to put it into historical perspective, alongside Columbine and the '66 Texas Tower sniper," says Farrar.
Historians and researchers may examine Cho's actions to try to understand his motive and what happened.
But to others, that's hardly helpful now, says Ms. Burger. "I can theorize and put it into a framework for them, and maybe I will," she says. "But we can't intellectualize it too much. It's too close to the bone."
The key will be providing a forum for students to express their emotions while allowing them to return to familiar work and routines.
"We have decided among ourselves that we are going to focus on the students first," says Virginia Tech Provost Mark McNamee. Last week, the university also announced it will give posthumous degrees to all students who were killed last Monday.
Meanwhile, their classmates will have the choice of either accepting their current grade in each class or trying to improve their marks by taking final exams. They will be allowed to turn in other work to bolster their final grade.
And even though most course work has been completed, some professors say they're ready to keep their students busy with additional work, if that's what they want to help them cope.
Monumental emotional journey
Most classes will probably have a normal number of students come Monday, although some may decide not to return, professors say.
"What we saw this week is most people leave campus for a short while to get away," says Peter Wallenstein, a Southern history professor. "But on Sunday, they will come back in large numbers, looking to reconnect and be with their own."
On October 1, 1887, Addison "Add" Caldwell set out from Sinking Creek, Va., on a hike not just to another place, but to another life. After 26 miles, he arrived in Blacksburg and became the first student to enroll at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, which today is known as Virginia Tech.
The walk back to class Monday for this year's students may not be as lengthy in physical terms, but the emotional journey will be as monumental, says Farrar.
Some faculty members admit they are looking to students for inspiration.
"It's unbelievable how strong the students seem, even in their sorrow and anger, because they don't want to forget, and yet they want to move on and reclaim this space as an educational institution," Ms. Burger says.