In the collective nightmare of the Virginia Tech massacre, myriad images are seared into our minds. For some, it is the detached and blank expression of the killer, Seung Hui Cho. For others, it is the image of terrified students running past heavily armed police. For me, it is a single door. Indeed, if there is to be a memorial to remember this tragedy, there could be no more poignant or powerful symbol than the bullet-ridden door of Room 204 on the second floor of Norris Hall.
Before April 17, it was the door that led into the classroom of professor Liviu Librescu. For 20 years, students had passed through the doors of Librescu’s classes to learn about engineering from one of the world’s leading aeronautical engineers. Like all academics, his classroom was his special domain, an almost sacred place in the hearts of all academics. It is a place protected from ignorance and intolerance — the enemies of learning. Yet, what makes such rooms special is not the interior but the occupants. The earliest “universities” did not have a conventional campus or building. A university was the collection of faculty and students who’d meet wherever they could find shelter and safety. When a famous teacher such as Plato met with his students, it was often in the open. He and his students would form a circle, and the interior of that circle became a place of learning, a protected space.
Even after universities created the physical protection of campuses, faculty remained the primary protectors of the place of learning. Shutting the school door to ignorance or hatred was an oft-used metaphor. For Librescu, this common metaphor would become a chilling reality.
Saving his students’ lives
About 9 a.m. April 16, when Seung Hui Cho began his shooting spree in Norris Hall, Librescu was in the middle of his solid mechanics class. Panic quickly took hold of the class as students began to scream and turn over desks for shelter. Librescu knew better. He shouted for his students to kick out the window screens and jump for safety as he used his body to block the door. As many as 15 students were saved before the 23-year-old English major was able to overcome the 76-year-old professor by shooting him through the door. Librescu died there in his classroom while most of his students jumped out of the windows to safety.
This was not Librescu’s first encounter with terror. Born in Romania, Librescu was sent to a ghetto holding Jews in World War II and his father was sent to a cruel work camp. He barely escaped the fate of hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews methodically executed by their government. Now, after surviving the Nazis and later persecution under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, he found himself literally holding back a man bent on methodically killing his students. He would die on Holocaust Remembrance Day, ending a life struggle against homicidal rage that began for him as a boy in the work houses of Romania.
The image of Librescu holding back a killer from entering his class is an image that most academics will never forget. Indeed the next day, when I opened the door to my torts class at George Washington University Law School, I felt an immense sense of pride and gratitude to be a member of the teaching academy. Even before we had walls on our classrooms, generations of academics have protected this special place. When I walked into my first class roughly two decades ago, I can remember the overwhelming feeling that this is my classroom and what occurs here is something of my making. It is a notion that is sometimes lost on non-academics. When a painter or a carpenter creates, he has a painting or a chest that is the physical expression of his skills and his vision. It is a manifestation on some level of himself.
For academics, our most important creative enterprise is non-physical. It is a journey of learning that we take every term with our students, a journey that is truly reciprocal in every way. The classroom may be ours for only an hour a day, but during that time, it is entirely ours. For better or worse, it is what we make of it and the truly great teachers, such as Librescu, can make something, while intangible, last a lifetime.
Liviu Librescu was not the only teacher to die in his classroom that day. French teacher Jocelyne Couture-Nowak of Canada; German teacher Jamie Bishop of Georgia; engineering teacher G.V. Loganathan of India and biomechanics teacher Kevin Granata of Ohio also fell where they taught. (Granata died after pulling 20 students into the safety of his locked office and, with another professor, sought to help others.) These five teachers came from three countries but shared a common bound with their students and their classrooms. They died with 27 gifted students who had come to this place of safety to learn about the world and about their role in it.
The gateway. The door.
This brings me back to that bullet-ridden door. The door of Room 204 became a literal barrier for an academic to shield his class and his students from harm. It stands as a reminder of the struggle and sacrifice that so many have made to preserve our places of learning. On one side was a force of unblinking, unthinking hate. On the other side was a force of unbridled loyalty and, yes, love. Cho had to shoot him through the door to gain entry into Librescu’s class. Yet in the end, Librescu won. He prevailed by showing that there are things and people worth dying for. His students were worth dying for. In the midst of unparalleled carnage, he offered a symbol that transcended fear and found meaning in sacrifice. He died as he lived, teaching his students perhaps the most important lesson of his life.
I expect that Virginia Tech will construct a memorial to replace the makeshift memorial outside Norris Hall. Here is my proposal. Place this door where everyone can see it while walking to and from their classes. Under it, simply put the well-chosen Latin motto of Virginia Tech: Ut Prosim— That I May Serve.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.