I wrote this piece as a letter to the Virginia Tech community, to where the events of a month ago brought me back.
Wearing Our Pain:
A reluctant Hokie puts on his orange and maroon
I feel small. Insignificant. Even as I recite “Hokie, Hokie, Hokie, Hi” on occasion, I rarely feel connected to my days of cheap wings at P.K’s, tests in McBride, Ultimate Frisbee on the Drillfield, and study sessions by the Duck Pond. But the shootings have shattered a bubble, a force-field I’ve erected to protect myself from memories of who I was a few years ago, and the pain I feel even now. We are miles apart but I offer this as my attempt to be there with you in Blacksburg, in a place I’ve wanted to desperately leave before, a place from which I now feel it’s impossible to pull myself away.
My freshman year I lived in Pritchard Hall, where I wrote my first email, watched my first downloaded movie, and woke up six hours late for my first test. I was lucky to find friends from my hometown in nearby dorm rooms, a comforting presence in an environment where I felt overwhelmed with pressure to simultaneously perform well academically and socially. I felt like I had to take the right classes, get the right grades, say smart things, impress people I’d never met, do well in beer-pong, understand the BCS, and hide the fact that deep down I really missed my home. I didn’t want to be at college but it was a part of the upward mobility my Southern grandmother preached as my right as a young white man; I saw no alternative. Feeling alienated and not knowing how to deal with my pain I drank, smoked a lot of weed, studied hard, went to football games, discovered internet porn, froze outside during fire drills at 3 a.m., and in other ways plotted my escape. I felt pain but couldn’t name it. I didn’t belong to a campus community that felt most unified while watching Michael Vick dash on the football field. I was planning the details of a study abroad trip to Finland. It never happened. This first year of college, eight years ago now, is a dream that must sound appealing to so many that woke up on a Tuesday morning with a cold chill; a touch of suffering hazy and hidden under the covers.
During the convocation on the Tuesday after the shootings, Nikki Giovanni passionately called on us to use this suffering to identify with a death given to unconsidered around the world. Children, men, and women do in fact hide from a rogue army in the night, swearing in blood and hoping to protect one another with only words…Jeremy Davidson, a three-year-old boy, really was crushed as he lay sleeping by a boulder rocked lose during the devastation of mountain-top removal coal mining in Appalachia, Virginia; these things are happening. I wonder how much of it I can feel now. I don’t have the memories to place myself in those shoes the way I can close my eyes to remember dozing my way through biology class in Norris Hall. I might be wrong. Perhaps Nikki Giovanni is right and now I do have these memories. Perhaps now we all have pieces of a collective memory riddled with fear, anxiety, and violence. I have faith that the more we connect through this memory, this suffering, the more we will find solace and time to breathe. That’s the message I found in Nikki Giovanni’s words. Midst a few deep breaths of my own, my eyes finally peeled away from the opportunistic media coverage of the shootings on April 16th, I have a few thoughts to share beyond my sincerest condolences:
I now work in Washington D.C. for an organization that does violence prevention work with young men. We engage young men to ally with women in challenging sexism and preventing men’s violence against women. My email signature is a quote from a favorite book of mine, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love by bell hooks. She writes, “The unhappiness of men in relationships, the grief men feel about the failure of love, often goes unnoticed in our society precisely because the patriarchal culture does not care if men are unhappy.” From email after email this quote has been calling to me over the last few days. Watching the videos Cho sent to NBC before his rampage it’s obvious that he was in a lot of pain, going so far as to say he was Christ-like, nailed to a cross. Taking a deep look at this pain is more urgent than talk of campus security and gun control. And this pain is not Cho’s alone. In fact, of all the dozens of school shootings in recent years the shooter has virtually always been a man. And this man’s violence has often been catalyzed by the paradoxical coupling of a supposed desire to save women with an actual brutality towards them, found in music videos on CMT, BET, all over the magazine aisle, and in the Iraq War.
Patriarchy at its most fundamental is an imbalance of power – men with more power personally and politically than women of the same rank. This, along with rigid gender expectations promoting the promise of invulnerability, homophobia, competition amongst men, and addictive sexuality based on the objectification of women’s bodies, shapes the training of men in our culture. Growing up, the promise of power is appealing; a gem that we may pursue regardless of the emotional loss that comes with it, or the pain it causes those around us. I remember standing up to my father’s coercive authority but I have also too often mimicked it. I also remember a class I took my senior year with Dr. Alexander-Floyd. I remember that I was more likely to challenge her than I would a male professor. With my male professors I usually felt intimidated, more likely to ask questions, and while I resisted it by joking around, ultimately I was eager to please. This stands out as one of my critical moments. It started the path I’m trying to walk now, taking a hard look at my socialization as a man and how to overcome the pain I carry with me. It’s not easy. Most of the men closest to me carry so much pain with them it’s hard to talk about it, we’ve all been hurt by one another playing a seemingly never-ending game of “king of the hill.”
When I’ve exerted power over others, and felt a need to control, it’s not been to cause pain but to justify my own. And a satisfying justification never comes; only more alienation and pain that gets measured out to women and other men that don’t fit into the boxes we want to put them in. I know I need to confront the images of naked female bodies that I consumed while on Pritchard Hall. Instead of huddling together around a magazine or two I came to Tech with my own PC and stayed isolated gazing at a monitor supplying my fantasies. This bred a sexuality that was so based on body parts that I was scared of intimacy with whole, real women. I was more content to obsess over distant crushes. Now, I want to be clear - this is about me, not Cho. But his videos, his last words to the world all looked familiar, if a bit extreme and severe. While the media has theorized over the influence of his race identity (remember, the majority of school shooters were not only men but white men), which on a predominantly white middle class campus certainly may have contributed to his alienation, why the distance from his gender identity?
The idea that “boys will be boys” has deeply thwarted our imagination. Do we so expect violence from men that it doesn’t deserve comment? Does ignoring men’s pain create an anger we are taught has to be written with fists? In my work with young men I know that so much is possible. Even at Virginia Tech I know that with every mainstream comes a margin. We are a school known for Engineering with poets like Nikki Giovanni in our midst; a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that researches pesticides along with students that volunteer on small organic farms; a campus with a Core of Cadets up the hill from students that hold up signs of protest on Henderson Lawn; a school with fanatical football fans and young men in Pritchard Hall crying along to pilfered versions of American Beauty on their computers (yeah, that was me); a school now nationally known for a tragedy; a school nationally known for a forestry department that can teach us something about new growth.
I don’t want to feel connected through singular, dramatic events. I want to be part of a community that breaks through alienation by finding itself together not only when we feel similar in our excitement (like when Vick took the Hokies to the National Championship) or in our loss, but also when we feel most different.
I finally did study abroad, a year in Nicaragua that may have saved me. But I don’t think we need to travel far away to recognize the power in communication, discernment, and challenges by those we may have hurt. We all have a lot of work to do but men, especially those young and white, have an ability to respond that should especially motivate us. How many of us know guys that suffer emotionally but don’t open up to talk about it? How many times have we felt uncomfortable about the way women, gay men, lesbians or transgender people were talked about but stayed silent? How can we take on the work to make us whole and remember to stay accountable to those under a thumb that looks like ours? In answering these questions with action, with mistakes and joys, I’ve begun to find myself, my humanity.
My years in Blacksburg weren’t all something that I wanted to escape, by no means. I struggled with unhealthy ways of dealing with the pain and hurt that to some degree comes with living. But I also connected with people that continue to care for me and challenge my thinking, and left me with a sense of myself that extended beyond what is now being called the “Hokie Nation.” See, I’ve never worn orange and maroon. I just never felt secure in the cries for an “Orange Effect.” That is, until recently.
While it's understanding that when we feel alienated we desire security, it's important to remember that the kind of security offered by cameras and police is never guaranteed. It isolates and divides. And this creates a cycle that leaves us desirous of more security. Directly after graduating from Tech I spent six months in federal prison after being arrested at a protest against US militarism in Latin America. I was in an environment managed, ID-checked, and draped with security. But it was there that I found the book Men’s Work by Paul Kivel (paulkivel.com) and had discussions with other prisoners that challenged me and opened my heart. My security has come with connection, with an openness, with change.
My only refuge comes from acknowledging the parts of myself that I may not recognize; the parts of myself that wanted counseling those first years at Tech but found it easy to turn away from because of the social stigma seen in the media’s treatment of Cho’s diagnosed mental illness. My refuge comes from friends that I can be vulnerable with. As I give voice to my own margins, my pain, I am reminded that voice must be given to those on the margins of our community, those that may never feel included in the Hokie Nation. So I’ll put on my orange and maroon for the first time, as a reminder that similarity can be found in our differences. I’ll again find my security in connection. Like two colors that at first glance don’t seem to go together, I’ll wear my pain.
Patrick Lincoln graduated with a BA in Spanish in 2003. He reconciled his relationship with sports thanks to the beauty of Michael Vick on the field, found amazing people at YMCA Student Programs while at Virginia Tech, and is currently the Director of Consulting and Training at Men Can Stop Rape. He can be reached at email@example.com and would love to hear from you.Share