When I first set foot in Chapel Hill, I remember feeling at home at once. Despite being a Yankee who grew up on the West Coast, and even as sweat forced me to repeatedly change shirts amid the August humidity, the University of North Carolina was love at first sight for me. The words of novelist and alumnus Thomas Wolfe that Chapel Hill “was as close to magic as I’ve ever been” rang as true to me as the gongs from the Bell Tower on campus tell the changing of time.
Anytime I find myself back in Chapel Hill, I leave with my heart as full as my stomach is usually of chicken cheddar biscuits from Franklin Street. I remember how I met my dearest friends in class, or when I worked late nights at my campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, and I still am close with many of them.
Those first few weeks of classes are filled with the normal mix of euphoria of being independent for the first time and disorientation of trying to find your way through the campus. It’s why we call Chapel Hill “Blue Heaven.” And anytime I return, even nine years after graduating, the wind whispers, “welcome back home.”
That innocence left Chapel Hill when Tailei Qi allegedly opened fire and killed his academic adviser, Zijie Yan. This singular act punctured this little slice of heaven and exposed it to the world around us and to the sickness that is American gun violence.
As soon as I got a text from a friend that a shooting was happening on campus, my heart sank. Seeing places I once navigated on a daily basis filled with barricades and cop cars, hearing testimony from students on lockdown became too much to bear.
I simultaneously breathed relief that I was not a student and wanted to be there with the younger Tar Heels and grieve with them. The Daily Tar Heel’s front page featured text messages from students as the campus was locked down. Later I learned that the students reported on the tragedy while they were also on lockdown.
As an alumnus of this paper, I teemed with pride for the kids, some of whom I had met when I made my annual jaunt for the paper’s homecoming and fundraiser. They have that admirable blend of audacity and willingness to learn that I once had. But as an American, I was ashamed that once again, we as a country let our youth down by letting guns proliferate so freely across the United States.
And as someone who took my lessons from the DTH to Washington to report on Congress and politics, I knew that nothing would be done to stop something like what happened there, let alone the racist shooting in Jacksonville or the shooting of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill back in 2015. I was almost glad Congress was out of session; I couldn’t bear to hear another lawmaker say that they would take no action to prevent something like this in the future, lest I scream something that would cause me to lose my press credential.
I never had any delusions about UNC or about Chapel Hill. As a student journalist, I took pleasure in ribbing the university for seeing itself as a bastion of liberal ideas while still having many tributes to the Confederacy or segregationists. But I always felt like the university and the student body could solve these problems.
I can no longer live under that delusion any more than I can about the Capitol being the safest place in Washington after January 6. Carolina will now be remembered just as much for this as it is for Michael Jordan, Dean Smith, the Old Well and Andy Griffith.
The lightness that comes with Chapel Hill will no longer exist for many students and faculty, even during those crisp October nights Charles Kuralt described, Halloween on Franklin Street or our annual basketball games against Duke University.
Wolfe, that same writer who called Chapel Hill magic, also wrote that “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame.” In the same way, UNC and Chapel Hill can never go back to before 28 August. America’s love of guns and Qi removed that magic and showed us it was only smoke and mirrors.