A Virginia Tech faculty member somberly narrates her fruitless attempts to secure counseling for Seung-Hui Cho and examines the implications of his subsequent rampage.
Poet-novelist Roy (The Hotel Alleluia, 2001, etc.) first met Cho in a poetry class in the spring of 2004. A year and a half later, his bizarre writing samples, harangues against other students and harassment of co-eds so alarmed poet Nikki Giovanni that she requested his removal from her class. Roy, at that time the chair of the school’s English Department, met Cho for independent study through the rest of the semester. Written in the present tense and filled with a poet’s mastery of tactile details, her description of these sessions is riveting, balancing sympathy for an anguished soul with horror over his presence. Wearing reflective sunglasses and a baseball cap as if for camouflage, waiting an agonizingly long time to speak, Cho drained energy from the room. Despite her e-mails alerting several Virginia Tech departments to his fragile mental state, and Cho’s attempts to contact the school’s counseling service, the student fell through the cracks. Roy was bewildered by the reaction of Virginia Tech’s administration to the massacre on April 16, 2007, which killed 32 and wounded 26. Overly strict adherence to student privacy laws, she stresses, hindered its response to both the threat posed by Cho and to the commission formed by the governor to investigate the crime. The author also carefully weighs the larger ramifications of the killings. Sorting through recommendations made after the calamity, Roy finds some helpful—for example, the suggestion that threat-assessment teams should be allowed to call high schools to trace troubled students’ histories—and others wanting. Gun prohibitions would not work, she argues, because weapons are ubiquitous. Federal and state budget cuts, the author warns, may further limit the attention school administrations can devote to student well-being.
Calm analysis only highlights the urgency of Roy’s warning that fundamental problems in American culture need to be addressed lest similar tragedies recur.