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A young girl walks past the memorial at Virginia Tech commemorating the students and teachers killed April 16, 2007.
Michelle Billman was a senior at Virginia Tech last April when a student gunman named Seung-hui Cho walked into an academic building on the Blacksburg campus and began shooting. Ultimately, he killed 32 students and faculty before killing himself, making this the nation's deadliest school shooting.
Billman graduated and moved to North Carolina. But, during a campus visit just before the first anniversary of the tragedy on April 16, 2007, she said she thinks about it daily and still feels vulnerable.
"It's a fact that, sorry, once your safety is gone, it is gone," she said.
When the shooting began in Norris Hall, Billman was in a nearby building. At the time, she was general manager of the university radio station WUVT. Now she teaches elementary school and attends graduate school at the University of North Carolina.
Scenes she didn't even see firsthand crowd her memories, she said.
"A lot of the actual media images stay in my head, things that I really don't want to remember and don't want to see," Billman said. "I see images of people hurt, and of the shooter — things you can't really get out of your mind."
Billman, who is getting an advanced degree in creative writing, said she initially had trouble writing in this first year of graduate school. She has almost finished one essay, she said, and "it feels really good to have it out of me."
While she locks her doors, Billman said "most days" she feels unsafe both at UNC and at the elementary school where she teaches. "I'm working with elementary-school kids and teaching them how to hide in cabinets when we have lock-down drills," she said. "It's just a very real fear, and it's a subject that comes up way too often."
At another teacher's recommendation, Billman spoke with a counselor once but didn't find the conversation helpful. "I don't think there's really any amount of counseling that can really change these feelings," she said.
Yet Billman is circumspect about the catastrophe. "I don't know if it's made me make different decisions," she said. "It's made me very grateful for things that I have — and probably way too paranoid."
Last week marked Billman's second visit to Blacksburg since the shootings. She didn't visit the memorial to its victims. "I didn't want to stop there this time," she said. "Of course, everyone's in my heart. I wanted to keep the focus on the things that people are accomplishing now."