I had turned 18 years old two weeks prior to April 20, 1999. I was looking ahead to starting college, to setting out on my own, and to buying a prom dress—to living. While I vaguely understood that mass shootings took place, I was detached from them as a real possibility. Then the Columbine shooting occurred at a high school in Littleton, Colorado, taking away the lives of 13 innocent people. That day, the realization sunk in that death could come not despite being in school, but because of it.
Eight years and numerous mass shootings later, the Virginia Tech massacre again shook me out of complacency. On that April morning in 2007, 32 people were killed on campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, in what remains the deadliest shooting rampage by a single gunman in U.S. history. As the coverage unfolded and the cellphones of the dead infamously continued to buzz, I—a graduate student instructor in Philadelphia still new to the job—prepared to teach my own class of freshmen and sophomores, 18- and 19-year-olds who were confronting the same reality that I had faced at their age: that schools and universities, places of growth and possibility, had become fair game.
As I readied my lesson on masculine and feminine pronouns for that mid-level Spanish class, I wondered if I should start by teaching them muerte (death), as I imagined what they were thinking anyway—that death could, in theory, find us here, now. I thought about the fact that even if the students and I were killed in some freak disaster or horrific massacre, there would still be fewer bodies than had been recovered at Virginia Tech the day before. I worried that no matter what I would do to try to protect them, it most likely wouldn’t be enough, and that only a “lucky” few of them might live to remember watching their classmates and teacher die.