Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Something just broke

One afternoon during my freshman year of college, at the very beginning of the fall semester, I stopped into a computer cluster (the one in the basement of Connecticut Hall on Old Campus, for those who know the neighborhood) to check my email. Computer clusters are usually pretty quiet, even when they're full to capacity, and this one was no exception -- until, with no apparent provocation, a guy stood up from the terminal where he'd been sitting. He was Asian, wearing glasses, holding a bookbag, totally unprepossessing. I wouldn't have given him a second look -- or even a first look -- if he hadn't started speaking, not to anybody in particular, but to the room in general. In retrospect, I guess you could say he was testifying; he started out, "I just want to say, I know sometimes things can happen that are really bad, and they can be hard for you to handle... but everything will get better, even though it seems really bad..."

He went on in this semi-apocalyptic vein for some time, and at some point I think he started talking about Jesus, and how you should bring your troubles to the Lord, but I don't remember exactly. What I do remember is that I thought, Holy shit, this guy is going to kill us all. He is obviously insane, and he has a bomb in that bookbag, or an automatic rifle, or something, and we're all going to die right here in the basement of Connecticut Hall, and classes haven't even started yet. I remember trying to decide whether I should risk bolting from the room while this guy was still delivering his suicide speech. And I wondered why nobody else seemed as frightened as I was... Of course, I was trying really hard not to make eye contact or attract attention to myself, so I didn't really make a thorough survey of the room. But I was waiting for someone, perhaps a large athletic male, to tackle this guy, and when that didn't happen I found myself thinking, Yes, I am new on campus, but surely this can't be normal computer-cluster behavior.

After a couple minutes of him talking and me panicking, the guy wrapped up whatever he had to say and just... sat back down. And everyone went on pretending nothing unusual had happened, and I finished whatever I was doing as fast as possible and left the building, my heart still pounding, deeply grateful to be alive.

Of course, weird stuff happened all the time at Yale (see yesterday's post), as I imagine it does on most campuses with a surplus of creativity and/or geekiness. For example, one year on Tap Night, an all-female secret society moved an armchair, an area rug, a potted plant and a large ceramic statue of a dog into one of the elevators in the library, so that it looked like a little conservatory -- and when the doors opened to admit a very surprised me, the girl inside offered me an Oreo. (I wasn't a candidate for this society, by the way, just a bemused bystander.) And during the course of that first year, I met quite a few people, Asian and otherwise, who loved Jesus and weren't shy about expressing their feelings on the topic. But I never again encountered anything quite so creepy and inexplicable as that guy's rambling testimony in the computer cluster. Eventually I forgot all about it (probably sometime around September 11, 2001) -- until today, when details started to come out about the Virginia Tech shooter.

There's no real point to my telling this story: I'm not saying my experience illuminates what those VT students went through, or are going through. I have no insight into how this could have been prevented, or what might have caused it. I'm not advocating suspicion of mild-mannered Asian college students. But that's what I'm thinking of today, for what it's worth. I'm still not sure whether I overreacted that day, or whether everyone else under-reacted, and I guess I'll never know. All I know is this: unless I'm sitting in a place of worship (and maybe even then), I reserve the right to leave the room, subway car, or general vicinity anytime somebody stands up and starts talking to nobody about Jesus, God or the end of the world. I guess that won't necessarily keep me safe, but I think God understands, just the same.

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