Twelve years ago I was teaching back to back to back classes on the Tech campus like I did every Monday morning. There was boring normalcy to the whole thing. I didn’t, and couldn’t, appreciate how nice boring and normal could be. Until the first texts started coming in. I was reading words that didn’t make sense, getting strange updates on my phone. Mostly, I just ignored my phone and kept teaching, because that’s what I was supposed to do. After my last class, my first chance to really look online, I realized every single thing I ever knew before was different. And I wished for normal and boring to be back.
I’m a Virginia Tech alum (GO HOKIES!), and that was the morning of, what was at the time, the worst mass shooting in modern US history. None of it made sense. Blacksburg is a sleepy town, where you know everyone, and everything feels safe and secure. In one flash, that was all gone. I’d already graduated and moved to Texas, but lots of friends, former coworkers, and even a family member were on campus. Some messages let me know that people were ok, but at least one was the opposite. We didn’t know if he was ok. All we knew was he was in the building. The building where I’d had so many classes, done homework and studied in the labs. Now it was a crime scene. Everything was upside down.
But it was Monday, and I was a perfectionist over-achieving oldest child, so I got back to my regular routine. I went to the bank. I tried to eat lunch. At 2pm, I dutifully went to my grad school class, because that’s what you do. All the while, I was getting messages with increasingly bad news. I have no idea what was said in class. OF COURSE, I DIDN’T. But I was sitting there, trying to take notes. It seems so ridiculous to present Kim, but at the time, I couldn’t picture anything else.
On the class break, my professor came to me and asked why I was there. She may have well asked if I knew about life on Mars. The question was absurd, but for exactly the opposite reason I thought. What in the world *was* I doing in class, when I didn’t even know if the people I loved were ok? Why wasn’t I taking a break, or generally practicing any level of self-care? Because I’d never considered it, that’s why. My professor very caringly, but firmly, told me I needed to go home because I had more important things to be doing. It may sound silly, but I’d honestly never considered that before. There may be something more important than school. More important than work. More important than following a schedule. It was an absolutely shocking suggestion. I will never stop being grateful for that jolt into reality.
So I went home. I let a friend make me dinner. I finally heard that my family member and closest friends were ok, at least physically. So, I bought plane tickets I couldn’t afford, to go home. That felt right, even if I knew I’d be behind when I got back, would need someone to cover my classes that week, and I’d have to work an endless amount of extra shifts to pay off that credit card. But going home was more important. And worth it. I honestly couldn’t believe it wasn’t my first move. It took a loving push from someone else to shock my system into making the (painfully) correct choice.
My new resolve was tested quickly. I informed my professors I’d be out the rest of the week. Most were incredibly supportive. One told me if I missed a class, they’d drop my average a full letter grade. I couldn’t fathom getting a B. Not that I’ve never had one, but not in grad school, and certainly not by choice. I just decided that day to do what mattered more. Even if there was a consequence. Sometimes there ARE consequences because our society doesn’t generally reward putting yourself, your health, or your family before work and other obligations. But I really knew that getting a B was worth it. So I left.
I will never regret going home that week. It was an incredible experience that I will never be able to describe. There was so much hope and healing, so much community, so much love. No class or grade or anything else would have fulfilled that same need.
I’ve always liked my friend Benjamin Franklin, and his saying “never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” That’s generally solid advice. But never? Ever? Some things can wait. And some things SHOULD wait! They should wait if it means more time to devote to the truly important things, the things that actually can’t wait. At the end of my life, I honestly don’t believe I’ll regret not having extra time to work. To achieve. To try and chase perfection. But I really do believe that I will always crave more time with the people I love most.
I promised myself that my take away from that day would be a re-prioritizing of my life. That I would put what matters first, even if there were consequences. I’m still 100% devoted to my work and am still a high achiever. But I unapologetically take vacations with my family. I take long lunches to go hang out in an elementary school cafeteria. I help with class parties and read books on special days. I let my boys make giant forts in their room and sleep on the floor, sometimes even on school nights! My house gets messy because we’d rather play and have quality time together than a spotless house.
Because the dishes can wait.
To read more about this event, see https://www.weremember.vt.edu/