This is not the post I planned to write today.
This is not a post I wanted to write, ever.
If you follow me on Twitter, you might have an idea of where this is going. Let me tell you my whole story.
On Monday nights, I have large obligations to two different student groups. I finished my work at one obligation after about two hours. I left the office of that organization. It was 8:36 p.m. I walked half a block to the building that houses the room where my next meeting would take place. I was the first one to arrive, so I sat down in my usual spot, pulled out my British Literature book, and continued reading poetry from World War I. The pain, grief, and unspeakable horror in those poems touched me, and my heart broke to think of the thousands of lives cut tragically short by that war.
I heard the train whistle blow. This was nothing extraordinary. We have train tracks that run through the eastern side of our campus. I thought of my friends who live in houses near the train tracks, and how they talk about their houses shaking when the train passes. I continued reading for a few moments until other members of this student organization arrived. When the last two came in, they exchanged words about the train.
“Did you have trouble getting here?”
“Yeah, the train’s stopped on the tracks.”
“Something’s going on. There’s all these police cars and ambulances. They were pulling people off the train. They were putting crime tape up. I watched it all happen–it’s right behind my building.”
We started our meeting around 9:00 and continued on as usual. This meeting is usually around two hours long. The first hour is for the executive board of the organization (that include me). The second hour is for the full committee–about 35 people in all. At around 9:50, four committee members came in.
“Do you know what happened?”
We knew something had happened with the train, but that was all.
“Someone was hit by the train, right behind [one of the buildings on campus.].”
I’ve mentioned my anxiety multiple times before. While it mostly manifests itself during thunderstorms, sometimes I get what I call “anxiety-ed out,” a feeling of intense anxiousness that can’t be controlled. I’m not able to think straight, my mind starts racing, my stomach twists into a thousand knots, I start shaking, and I have a difficult time forming sentences. That’s what happened as soon as I heard someone had been hit.
In the time between the exec meeting and the full committee meeting, I attempted to talk to my junior to figure out some of our obligations for the week (every position on the exec board has two people: a senior and a junior). I couldn’t focus. Someone had been hit by the train. Though my campus is embedded in our town rather than its own separate entity, given the location and time of the accident it would be extremely unlikely that a community member would have been walking there. It was probably one of us–one of our own. But we knew nothing, Facebook knew nothing, our student/faculty website knew nothing, the local news outlets knew nothing, and I allowed myself to pretend it was a community member.
When the meeting ended, I waited around for one of the other people on the exec board to give me a ride back to my apartment. When she was ready, we opened the door of our meeting room to leave. The first person I saw was our Dean of the Chapel. I don’t remember if we made eye contact or not, but my stomach sank and my heart began to race. I looked around: the President of the College. The Dean of Students. Several other grown men. They were all in this hall, stopped to look at us for a brief moment before continuing down to the President’s office. That was when I knew.
“Do you know who it is?”
One of my friends on the exec board said this from behind me to the Dean of the Chapel. I stared at him, feeling very much like a young girl looking to her father when she knows something bad has happened. What was probably five seconds passed, but it felt truly felt like five minutes.
“Or can you not tell us?”
My friend again.
“We can’t say anything,” the Dean of the Chapel said.
He didn’t have to. Under no circumstance would that many people of that much importance at my college be on campus going to the President’s office at 10:45 p.m. unless it were a student. He didn’t need to confirm it for me. I knew.
I rode home with my friend (not the one who asked the questions: a different one). She told me about recent boy drama and I tried to focus, but I couldn’t. I needed to get home, and I needed to get on Facebook. I needed to take an inventory. Within an hour, the question had changed. It was no longer a question of, “Is it?” — that had been answered. It was a question of “Who is it?” I needed to see who had posted on Facebook. I needed to see who had Tweeted. I needed to know who was still alive . There are about 3200 students at my school, and as I said to my mom when I called her to tell her the news, “It’s not really a matter of do I know this person or not–chances are I do. It’s really a matter of how close I am to them, and I can only hope to God that it’s not someone I care about deeply.”
I had one particular person in mind when I said that. By the Grace of God, that person’s Facebook status was the first to show up on my newsfeed. I breathed a sigh of relief unlike any other I’ve breathed in my life. Everyone after this was just a blessing.
Pray for [my] College.
Pray for the student and his family.
That’s all I saw on Facebook. Status after status after status–it was all anyone cared about Monday night. With each status, I felt more and more relieved. It wasn’t my best friend. It wasn’t anyone in my student organizations. It wasn’t any of my roommates, past or present. Maybe, just maybe, I didn’t actually know the victim.
I stayed up way too late on Monday night waiting for more details, but they never came. A lot of people on campus gathered around this sculpture we have that’s very integral to our campus, but my roommates and I chose to stay home and be with each other. It was what we needed to do. We just sat and talked–not necessarily about the accident, just talked. Enjoyed being with each other with the same unspoken thought on our mind: I’m so thankful it wasn’t you.
On Tuesday morning, I checked our student website. It turned out that a rumor one of my roommates heard around 12:30 a.m. was true: it was a freshman. I didn’t know him. There has been no official word on the accident–if it was, in fact, an accident or if it were intentional on his part. There’s a lot of speculation, but no one knows for sure.
There are never classes scheduled at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays or Thursdays here. It’s called Community Hour–a scheduled time off so everyone has a chance to breathe for a moment. On Tuesday, well over 1000 people gathered in the chapel to sing, to pray, and just to be with each other. Though it may not always be apparent, we are a strong, strong community. We support each other in our darkest moments.
This is the third student death while I’ve been a student here. The first two were together–a plane crash–and I did know them, so that was a bit more difficult for me personally. This, however, has not been easy. I run over those railroad tracks every single time I run. I hear the train time and time and time again during the day. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know the student who died–he was still one of Us, and it still hurts.
I’ve written all this partly for my own sanity and relief, but partly to share the story. If there’s anything to be taken from this, it’s that we need to love each other. Not just when tragedy strikes or when something reminds us of the frailty of life. We need to love each other. Period. Until there is never another article in the newspaper with the line, “Witnesses said the victim was standing on the railroad tracks as the train approached.” Until there is never another meeting that opens with the line, “There was a plane crash this afternoon, and Emma was the passenger in the plane.” Love each other while you can.