The mood in the basketball arena was defeated, funereal. Nikki Giovanni seemed an unlikely source of strength for a Virginia Tech campus reeling from the depravity of one of its own.
Tiny, almost elfin, her delivery blunted by the loss of a lung, Giovanni brought the crowd at the memorial service to its feet and whipped mourners into an almost evangelical fervor with her words: “We are the Hokies. We will prevail, we will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.”
Nearly two years earlier, Giovanni had stood up to Cho Seung-Hui before he drenched the campus in blood. Her comments Tuesday showed that the man who had killed 32 students and teachers had not killed the school’s spirit.
Meanwhile, new details emerged Wednesday regarding what Cho did in the two hours between the two attacks. Midway through his murderous rampage, the Virginia Tech gunman went to the post office and mailed NBC a package containing photos and videos of him brandishing guns and delivering a snarling, profanity-laced tirade about rich “brats” and their “hedonistic needs.”
Giovanni recalled Wednesday her interactions with Cho. In September 2005, Cho was enrolled in Giovanni’s introduction to creative writing class. From the beginning, he began building a wall between himself and the rest of the class.
He wore sunglasses to class and pulled his maroon knit cap down low over his forehead. When she tried to get him to participate in class discussion, his answer was silence.
“Sometimes, students try to intimidate you,” Giovanni told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. “And I just assumed that he was trying to assert himself.”
But then female students began complaining about Cho.
About five weeks into the semester, students told Giovanni that Cho was taking photographs of their legs and knees under the desks with his cell phone. She told him to stop, but the damage was already done.
Female students refused to come to class, submitting their work by computer instead. As for Cho, he was not adding anything to the classroom atmosphere, only detracting.
Police asked Giovanni not to disclose the exact content or nature of Cho’s poetry. But she said it was not violent like other writings that have been circulating.
It was more invasive.
“Violent is like, ‘I’m going to do this,’” said Giovanni, a three-time NAACP Image Award winner who is sometimes called “the princess of black poetry.” This was more like a personal violation, as if Cho were objectifying his subjects, “doing thing to your body parts.”
“It’s not like, ‘I’ll rip your heart out,’” she recalled. “It’s that, `Your bra is torn,and I’m looking at your flesh.”
His work had no meter or structure or rhyme scheme. To Giovanni, it was simply “a tirade.”
“There was no writing. I wasn’t teaching him anything, and he didn’t want to learn anything,” she said. “And I finally realized either I was going to lose my class, or Mr. Cho had to leave.”
Giovanni wrote a letter to then-department head Lucinda Roy, who removed Cho.
Roy alerted student affairs, the dean’s office, even the campus police, but each said there was nothing they could do if Cho had made no overt threats against himself or others. So Roy took him on as a kind of personal tutor.
“At first he would hardly say anything, and I was lucky to get, say, in 30 minutes, four or five monosyllabic answers from him,” she said. “But bit by bit, he began to tell me things.”
During their hourlong sessions, Roy encouraged Cho to express himself in writing. She would compose poems with him, contributing to the works herself and taking dictation from him.
“I tried to keep him focused on things that were outside the self a little bit,” said Roy, who has been at Virginia Tech for 22 years. “Because he seemed to be running inside circles in a maze when he was talking about himself.”
He was “very guarded” when it came to his family. But she got him to open up about his feelings of isolation.
“You seem so lonely,” she told him once. “Do you have any friends?”
“I am lonely,” he replied. “I don’t have any friends.”
Suitemates and others have said Cho rejected their overtures of friendship. Roy sensed that Cho’s isolation might be largely self-imposed.
To her, it was as if he were two people.
“He was actually quite arrogant and could be quite obnoxious, and was also deeply, it seemed, insecure,” she said.
But when she wrote to Cho about his behavior in Giovanni’s class, Roy received what she described as “a pretty strident response.”
“It was a vigorous defense of the self,” she said. “He clearly felt that he was in the right and that the professor was in the wrong. It was the kind of tone that I would never have used as an undergraduate at a faculty member.”
She felt he fancied himself a loner, but she wasn’t sure what underlay that feeling.
“I mean, if you see yourself as a loner, sometimes that means you feel very isolated and insecure and inferior. Or it can mean that you feel quite superior to others, because you’ve distanced yourself. And I think he went from one extreme to another.”
When the semester ended, so did Roy’s and Cho’s collaboration. She went on leave and thought he had graduated.
When she and Giovanni learned of the shootings and heard a description of the gunman, they immediately thought of Cho.
Roy wonders now whether things would have turned out differently had she continued their sessions. But Giovanni sees no reason for people who had interactions with Cho to beat themselves up.
“I know that there’s a tendency to think that everybody can get counseling or can have a bowl of tomato soup and everything is going to be all right,” she said. “But I think that evil exists, and I think that he was a mean person.”
Giovanni encountered Cho only once after she removed him from class. She was walking down a campus path and noticed him coming toward her. They maintained eye contact until passing each other.
Giovanni, who had survived lung cancer, was determined she would not blink first.
“I was not going to look away as if I were afraid,” she said. “To me he was a bully, and I had no fear of this child.”
Meanwhile, NBC said the package it received from Cho contained a rambling and often-incoherent, 1,800-word video manifesto, plus 43 photos, 11 of them showing him aiming handguns at the camera.
“You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today,” 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui says in a harsh monotone. “But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”
He repeatedly suggests he was picked on or otherwise hurt.
“You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience,” he says, apparently reading from his manifesto. “You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”
The package arrived at NBC’s headquarters in New York two days after Cho killed 32 people and committed suicide in the deadliest one-man shooting rampage in modern U.S. history. It bore a Postal Service time stamp showing that it had been mailed at a Virginia post office at 9:01 a.m. Monday, about an hour and 45 minutes after Cho first opened fire.
That would help explain one of the biggest mysteries about the massacre: where the gunman was and what he did during that two-hour window between the first burst of gunfire, at a high-rise dorm, and the second fusillade, at a classroom building.
“Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats,” says Cho, a South Korean immigrant whose parents work at a dry cleaners in surburban Washington. “Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust funds wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac wasn’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything.”
Some of the pictures show him smiling; others show him frowning and snarling. Some depict him brandishing two weapons at a time, one in each hand. He wears a khaki-colored military-style vest, fingerless gloves, a black T-shirt, a backpack and a backwards, black baseball cap. Another photo shows him swinging a hammer two-fisted. Another shows an angry-looking Cho holding a gun to his temple.
He refers to “martyrs like Eric and Dylan” a reference to the teenage killers in the Columbine High massacre.
The package was sent by overnight delivery but did not arrive at NBC until Wednesday morning. It had apparently been delayed because it had the wrong ZIP code, NBC said.
An alert postal employee brought the package to NBC’s attention after noticing the Blacksburg return address and a name similar to the words reportedly found scrawled in red ink on Cho’s arm after the bloodbath, “Ismail Ax,” NBC said.
NBC News President Steve Capus said that the network received the package around noon and notified the FBI. He said the FBI asked NBC to hold off reporting on it so that the bureau could look at it first, and NBC complied, finally breaking the story just before a police announcement of the package at 4:30 p.m.
Capus said it was clear Cho videotaped himself, because he could be seen leaning in to shut off the camera.
State Police Spokeswoman Corinne Geller cautioned that, while the package was mailed between the two shootings, police have not inspected the footage and have yet to establish exactly when the images were made.
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