The Killer in My Class

Two years after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, creative writing professor Lucinda Roy recalls the quiet, tortured murderer in her poetry class in an exclusive excerpt from her powerful new memoir.

You are not meant to say you are sorry after tragedies like this. People avoid doing so. And thus it is that the same fear that kept some people silent before the tragedy keeps people silent all over again.

I could not prevent the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Although I felt that Seung-Hui Cho was suicidal, I did not witness the full extent of his rage; he kept it hidden from me, or perhaps he didn’t feel it when we were together, or perhaps it grew inside of him like a tumor until nothing was left.

In the fall of 2005, Cho reached out for help. Back then, even he seemed to know that he was spiraling out of control.

I have friends who believe that Cho was a monster, and friends who believe that he was simply a very sick young man in need of help, a victim of his own illness. My conclusions are less cut-and dried. I believe he was easily hurt, yearning for affirmation, desperately lonely, and severely mentally ill; I also believe that he was enraged and resentful, envious, narcissistic, and prejudiced. In the fall of 2005, however, he reached out for help. Back then, even he seemed to know that he was spiraling out of control.

I have been asked fairly frequently why it was that only Seung-Hui Cho’s English professors and instructors seemed to be aware that he was an unusually quiet student while those in other disciplines didn’t appear to notice him, even though he would have taken a variety of other classes. The answers reveal a lot about the nature of education at large state institutions where interaction between faculty and students can be limited. The relatively small class size in most writing classes—creative writing, literature, business and technical writing, and composition—means that students can be noticed. It is much more difficult to do this in large lecture classes. In addition, the nature of the assignments in creative writing allows students to express themselves much more freely than in other courses. The pedagogical approach in writing and literature is often based on newer models where interaction is a critical component of the learning process. Looking at the ways in which writing enables students to discover things about themselves and the world helps us understand why creative writing is fast becoming one of the most popular majors and minors, and the nexus of a battle between free speech and censorship, individual privacy and collective security. Before we impose strict censorship on student writers, it’s important to understand what we may be losing if we do so.

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Excerpted from No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy At Virginia Tech by Lucinda Roy © 2009. With permission from the publisher, Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Lucinda Roy is an Alumni Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, where she has taught since 1985. Author of the novels Lady Moses and The Hotel Alleluia and two poetry collections, she is the recipient of numerous writing and teaching awards, including a statewide Outstanding Faculty Award in 2005. From 2002–2006, she served as chair of Virginia Tech’s Department of English.