Poetry professor who rallied students at memorial service had expelled gunman from class
BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) -- 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 the mourners into an almost evangelical fervor with the 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 nearly two years 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.
"We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid," the 63-year-old poet with the close-cropped, platinum hair told the grieving crowd. "We are better than we think, not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness."
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 that was inappropriate and 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 me 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 had him removed from her class. She was walking down a path on the main campus 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."