Editors Notes: This article was written in the wake of the tragedy that struck Michigan State’s campus by a passionate alumni.
When I’m driving down Grand River past MSU’s campus, I’ve never been able to keep my eyes entirely focused on the road. Sure, there’s good people-watching, especially when the Peanut Barrel’s patio opens in the spring. I’ve always been more focused on the brick buildings across the street that set north campus apart from the rest.
When I first got to MSU, I thought about what those old buildings had seen; the people, the lectures, the eureka moments that some nameless PhD student lost to time experienced while toiling away on their dissertation.
Sadly, those buildings became the scene of the latest tragedy in America’s mass shooting epidemic. On Monday, a Lansing man opened fire, attacking a community he had no stake in, no history with, and no connection to, outside of an accident of geography. It’s not a tangible thing, but all places carry meaning, college campuses perhaps most of all.
I was a history major at MSU, and as a result, I spent a lot of time in Berkey Hall. It’s an old building full of classrooms that, at least when I was in school, were complete with chalkboards and cramped DMV style desks. For the first few weeks of the fall semester and the last couple weeks in the spring, there were days where the heat was stifling, and no amount of open windows would help with circulation. Even though it wasn’t, and never will be the Ritz, it was where the discussions happened. It’s where the tests happened. It’s where the lectures happened. It’s where I first heard about the Moroccan Crisis of 1905 and subsequently what “doing History” actually was. The things I thought about inside those walls are why I do what I do professionally, and why my life is what it is today.
So, when I refreshed my Twitter feed around 8:30 on Monday night to see that shots were fired in the area of that building, I had a knot in my stomach that still hasn’t entirely left. The people in there, whose lives were in danger, were me ten years ago. They were doing what college students do - meeting in clubs, listening to a speaker, doing homework, doing normal things that nobody should have to think twice about.
This Lansing area community is my home. My two year old son loves going to the Broad Art Museum for their kid’s day programming, the same Broad Museum that sits next door to Berkey along Grand River. He also likes watching the ducks along the river behind the Administration Building, and my dog likes to harass those same ducks, despite my best efforts.
I like to park by the Union when we go out to eat in East Lansing, then when the inevitable toddler rage hits, we can walk on the beautiful grounds around the building, while he excitedly says “Sparty” every time he sees a Spartan helmet. Students, alumni, and staff have this strong connection to this place in common. The fact that a reclusive loner in the midst of a years-long decline in mental stability chose to attack this community, and murder three people on the same path that so many of us walk, is painful. It’s senseless in the truest form of the word. Michigan State did nothing to this man besides exist within walking distance of his shabby home, but that didn’t stop him from exploding in destructive rage.
This website, and every other like it, exists because of our collective obsession with college sports. Every person who attends a school doesn’t necessarily become a fan of their sports teams, but those teams are the simplest representation of what that school is - a more relatable way of looking at university rankings.
University campuses around the country are the crucibles in which kids form their identities and expertises that they take into the adult world. The connection that exists between someone and their school is hard to break.
New experiences, ideas, people, relationships, skills, and hobbies all fly at every undergraduate at an incredible pace, and that leaves an impression that never disappears. Once we graduate, those colors, the only colors, are the most visible connection to that place that exists. Even the most casual Spartan graduate has no choice but to smile when they see a quick headline about the women’s soccer team winning the Big Ten, or glimpse an old clip of Michael Geiger windmilling down the field in unadulterated glee. It shows that the place that helped form them into the grown person they are is still chugging along, showing excellence somewhere.
Last week, I was walking back to my car after Michigan State’s basketball game against Maryland when I felt a sense of peacefulness. It was almost 1 AM, and I’d been doing some postgame writing in the press room at the Breslin Center. Under the sanitized fluorescent lights, it could have been 1 AM or 2 PM and it would have felt the same indoors, but once I stepped outside, it couldn’t have been more different. It was crisp and the night sky was clear, and I couldn’t help but feel the calm wash over me walking across campus.
That sense of peace is shattered right now, even though the suspect is no longer around to inflict more pain and plunge the community into further chaos. I hope that the students on campus now, who just experienced a sense of fear that even being a few minutes down the road helped dull, can eventually walk across campus and feel that sense of peace in such a special place. I wish that I had been able to bottle that feeling up, so we could all experience what that level of peace is like when we need it most.