It was the small things.
As I drove down the main road leading to the NIU campus, it wasn’t immediately noticeable that something had changed.
But if you looked closely, you could see it in the small things.
The light post banners that read “Forward, Together Forward.”
The signs at the La Tan, liquor store, Subway, or Pizza Hut, all proclaiming their thoughts and prayers for the NIU family.
The red and black balloons that flew from fence posts and mailboxes.
The multitude of students in their red and black attire, from the girls working at Starbucks with red headbands, to the group of four athletes walking across campus in their matching read and black gym suits. I don’t remember seeing a single student in a different color, or without the NIU logo.
On my first day there yesterday, I pulled into campus and parked in my usual Visitor’s parking lot. I walked over to the check-in point for therapists, but got a bit turned around, and ended up face-to-face with five white crosses covered in flowers and signs, representing the five students that were killed. Next to this, four huge billboard-type posters were set up, all covered with words of hope, loss, support and grief by the NIU community. And just beyond that, the yellow police tape marking off the building in which the shooting took place, flapped in the light breeze of the afternoon.
And it was silent.
This shocked me. There were people – students, parents, faculty - milling around, but it was silent.
I found my building, went to orientation, got my assignment for the following day and had dinner.
It wasn’t until the end of the day that I was really able to put my finger on what I was experiencing. And I pinpointed two very distinct feelings on that first day.
The first is discomfort, and the sense of being intrusive.
I feel almost like a voyeur, watching as this unfolds in front of me, like an outsider. This is their community, their grief, and it is towards each other that they will turn for support.
As grief counselors, we are assigned to a classroom or an academic department, and are supposed to act as a supportive presence to the student and staff, if they need to talk or needs information regarding further counseling. We were told to “watch” for individuals that may look like they are struggling, and offer assistance if needed. But tonight, during the Memorial Service, it more like being the Emotion Police, like I was monitoring and surveying the situation for potential problems.
But what I saw was a community supporting itself with its own strength and resilience.
As we were shuttled to dinner, I watched parents drop their kids off at the curbs, as if it were the first day of school all over again. But this time, both the parents and students looked apprehensive, scared. They hugged just a little bit longer on those curbs, and the parents lingered just a little bit longer as their children disappeared into those buildings.
I watched students embracing each other in the light of day, girls with their faces buried in the hooded sweatshirts of their boyfriends. Students standing in front of those white crosses, holding hands, silent. Signs in almost every window of every dorm room, reading “God Bless NIU. We Are The Huskies.”
I thought, “I shouldn’t be seeing this. This is not my grief. This is theirs. They should have their privacy.” I was embarrassed, as if my presence was as unwanted as the plethora of reporters, who literally chase down the kids, asking, “Are you a student here? How are you feeling? What’s it like to be back on campus?”
The second feeling was profound sadness, but not about what I thought. It occurred towards the end of the memorial service, during a slide show of pictures of students from other universities.
What made me so sad was watching these pictures of students from other campuses, especially Virginia Tech, hold prayer vigils, or send their own words of support NIU, proclaiming, “Today, we are all Huskies.” This should not be their reality. Death should not be the common thread that connects them.
I went to college in downtown Chicago, close to the infamous West Side. It was dangerous, to say the least. But 10 years ago, my biggest worry was how to get an A in a class after ditching too many sessions, or making the deadline for my story in the newspaper. I never hesitated to walk into my classroom, never thought twice about where to sit in lecture hall, and never looked over my shoulder as I walked between buildings.
But these students now do. Every time the door to the lecture hall opens, they’ll jump. When a book drops off the desk, their hearts will leap in fear. College is a time for exploring one’s identity, but will they always give a second glance to the kid that looks just a little different, a little unusual, a little outside the norm?
How is that normal? How has it come to this? One of the speakers at the memorial last night said, “Today, we are a little bit older than yesterday…we have lost a little of our youth.” And later on the shuttle with other counselors, I overheard someone quoting another speaker and stating, “Parents send their kids to school to learn, not to die.”
That these words ever had to be spoken is so very wrong.
Today, I was assigned to an academic department in the building that is directly next to Cole Hall. In fact, the office I was in was the one place students ran to when the shootings happened, given that the doors of each building are literally steps away from each other.
I had the honor of talking with students and professors, as well as office workers and grad students, all of whom were there and touched by the events of that day. Some witnessed the students being carried out, some were the actual students that were carried out. The emotions ranged from hope to despair, from sadness to guilt, from resilience to fear. The greatest concern appeared to be safety, both from the students and the professors. Although the gunman took his own life that day, there have been two separate incidents in which hate messages were scrawled on the campus, neither of which were connected to the shootings, but both of which remain unsolved.
So the question in the minds of almost all students remains: Can this happen again?
I can’t say a ton more about what was discussed, but I will say this: If I walked away with anything today, it is that I had the honor of being present with these individuals. The solidarity and strength of the bond that the entire campus now has was astounding. You see it on the news or read it in the paper, but to feel it across campus, across social groups, across ages and races – this community came together in a way I have never seen. It was truly an honor to be welcomed into it, to be accepted into their circle of grief and hope, and to be able to just listen to their stories, their experiences of that day and the subsequent days.
NIU gave me more today than I could have given them.
Last week, Laura said to me, “Life is short.”
And today NIU said, "It goes on."