Sunday, November 4, 2012

My City of Ruins- Bruce Springsteen


        I left Princeton last Saturday with a smile on my face.   The Forum and the events that followed reinforced my belief in the role of teacher leaders and the importance of having teacher voice in discussions about policy.  We had joked a little about the impending "Armageddon" and how people would panic and there wouldn't be any bread, milk or eggs left in the stores. 

Then Sandy hit.
    For two and a half days the storm raged.  A state of emergency was declared, everything was closed, two million people in NJ lost power and people hunkered down.  When things finally calmed down, people warily poked their heads outside and looked around like turtles emerging from their shells.  For those that had power, the images on TV that now resembled a war zone seemed too incredible to be real. The majority of the Jersey shore was washed away, towns flooded, and life came to a halt while we assessed the damage. Even Halloween was cancelled. 
     My first concern was for my loved ones, and I made sure they were alright,  but as I watched the news coverage, my heart broke.  I travelled to so many of the areas I saw on TV this past year as NJ State Teacher of the Year, and I knew teachers in every county.  The boundaries of my "school district" had widened to include the entire state, and I felt helpless in the face of this disaster. 
      In 17 years of teaching, I have learned a few things about the role of schools in our students lives.  First, schools are safe havens for many students.  I have had students who are homeless or living in terrible conditions; some don't know where their next meal is coming from.  Others are subjected to home lives that are filled with violence, neglect or abuse.  Schools are the one place where students can go where they can forget about all the other things they have no control over.  There is a routine, there are adults that care about them and there are warm meals.  School not only feeds the intellect and shows us that there are choices in life, it provides some stability in an unpredictable world. 
      For many students here in NJ, the stability provided by school is gone, because their schools have been severely damaged or destroyed.   Many are being used as emergency shelters.  Like balloons set adrift, these students are without anchor.  No homes and no schools.  In the short term, they will be bussed to places that are unfamiliar to them and placed in classes where they are strangers and the other students have already bonded.  They will struggle to get by as they live in shelters or the homes of friends and family, their routine completely disrupted. It is going to take months if not years to rebuild, and that thought is daunting.
      Then I remembered that a small band of determined people can make a difference.  I am only one person, but with a little help from my friends across the state and country, we can help get these teachers and students back on track.  Surely, if anyone knows the value of schools, it is teachers.  Classroom supplies are needed and libraries need to be restocked.  Imagine not only losing all the belongings in your house, but everything in your classroom as well.  Think about all the money you have invested over the years for bulletin boards, craft supplies, books, technology, resources etc. and then imagine starting all over again.  Towns are going to need to rebuild homes and infrastructure.  In NJ, schools are supported by property taxes.  How can we ask those who have lost everything to pay more?   We are going to need to adopt classrooms and schools and help them in their recovery.  The NJEA and NJDOE are in the process of compiling a list of schools which should be available next week.  For those of you not effected directly by Sandy, how much do you value other children's education?  What are you willing to do to help?
       Within NJ, I have been hearing reports from all over the state from county and state TOYs who have been helping their neighbors.  There are schools all over the state being used as shelters which are full of people who need supplies and showers because the power has been out for a week already.  And then there are places where teachers live which have been devastated.  They are not going to be able to care for other people's children in their classrooms, until they take care of their own families. Donating to the Red Cross is great, but it does not help people pull up carpets and remove appliances and furniture.  It also can't be that familiar face that shows up to say you are not alone and give a hug to those that don't know how they will start over again. 
      Inactivity and I don't go well together; I never have been good at 'down time'.  After helping some friends in Somers Point earlier this week, I was anxious to get back out there and put some of my archaeology skills to work.  A friend and excellent teacher leader, Michael Dunlea the 2012 Ocean County TOY was hard hit in Stafford Twp.  Once he got power back, he started organizing and finding out which teachers needed help gutting their houses after the flooding that hit Manahawkin,which is just inland from Long Beach Island.  A few people turned into an army of volunteers.  One of the first houses that was gutted volunteered to be the meeting place for all the volunteers to come and have some food, get warm and use the bathroom.  Mind you, this neighborhood still has no power, so all the food is donated and getting warm simply involves coming out of the draft.  This morning, temps were in the mid 40's and the crowd was dispersed to multiple addresses that had been texted to Michael. Despite the gasoline shortages effecting 2/3 of NJ, I  had travelled to Ocean County to be one of the volunteers.  When we finished cleaning out the homes of Stafford Twp. staffers and their families, we freelanced and helped anyone who needed it. 


      The devastation I witnessed was horrible.  There are many people, including local teachers, police and firefighters who live in these towns year round.  Imagine everything on the first floor of your house that touches the floor or is lower than three feet having to be thrown out.  Dresser drawers are swollen shut with moisture and furniture is waterlogged.  Imagine the water from the bay soaking your home so that the carpets are still sopping wet and the sheet rock, floorboards and electric are destroyed.  Imagine having to throw out all of your appliances and food.  What if your home is only one story?  Where do you go and what do you do with the items you have managed to salvage?  After 5 days of water, imagine the mold. 

You can see the high water line.

Stuff we pulled out of a house.

That boat is not supposed to be there!

You can see the spray painted symbols.

The carpets still soaking wet.



      I saw houses with boats lodged into them, houses where you were able to look right through from front to back because walls had been washed away, houses that had been lifted off of their foundations with the deluge of water and had landed off kilter.  There were houses that had been spray painted with yellow symbols to show that they were condemned. These are not all summer homes of the super wealthy, there are a lot of shore dwellers who live there year round including teachers, police, firefighters and EMTs. I helped a widow who had lived in her house for 30 years who had no family nearby and had lost everything.  Despite the devastation in Beach Haven West where we were, the reality was that there was even worse waiting on the other side of the bridge in LBI.  A few folks were allowed closer today and they said that  besides all the water and wind damage, everything is covered in at least two inches of muddy sludge.  There are also two schools on the island. 
      I was back in a classroom this week doing some guest teaching so that I can complete my National Board Certification. My first day with my students was their first day back after the storm. Many were still without power and before I could even begin to teach, we had to have a discussion about what had happened and I had to make sure my student's basic needs were met. Empathy is an important part of teaching because you can't teach them until you reach them. I applauded the students who came to school despite having no power, but I understood exactly why they were there. But how do you learn when you are cold, hungry and don't know if you have a home to return to?  It reinforced the idea that you can't address learning until you address the other socioeconomic needs of our students. Students need wrap around services to support them so they can succeed. 
     I returned from my day tired, sore and smelling of stagnant bay water.  I took a warm shower, had some dinner and realized how lucky I am because there are so many people who are still doing without.  We are on gas rations up north, there are still 500,000 people without power and there are many people who have lost everything and had their lives changed forever.  In my travels this week, I saw several caravans of electric trucks on their way up north to help from Texas, New Mexico and Mississippi.  They were a beautiful and most welcome sight.  Everyone is good at something and has a special talent, which is why it bothers me to see others go on with life as usual when things are so desperate for others.  Get out and help!  If these people running marathons today would take their physical strength and go help clean out houses, we could get the job done much faster.  Time is of the essence, because the temperatures have dipped to freezing and there is another Nor'easter on the way for Wednesday.
I am one person and alone my contribution is negligible, but as a group of people working together we can make a big difference.   Everyone seems to be talking about the boardwalk, no one is talking about the schools yet, and they will be low on the list of priorities for these towns that have been hard hit.  But teachers all across the country know the role that a school plays in a student's life.  Let's do what we can.

We will try to fix you.     

A symbol of hope?


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