Water is a deceptive friend. Necessary for survival while also unforgivably, forcibly, greedy for the life it fosters and all the items that celebrate the importance of it.
As I sit in my classroom, I can hear the sheets of rain pouring down, training in. It’s been doing this for a couple of hours now as the first bands of now Tropical Storm Harvey creep this direction–making it hard to concentrate. There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of friends so close by that are suffering an even greater deluge and significant loss.
As a native New Orleanian, I am no stranger to tropical weather systems and the destruction and pain they can leave in their wake. It is not a way of life by any means, rather a fact of it. Kind of like heat, humidity, good food and good conversation. We live here because it is home and because there is a culture here that ties us to this place and to each other and because epic weather events, increasingly, happen anywhere—not just here.
My parents lost their home and its contents to Hurricane Katrina when a levee broke blocks away, leaving their house to marinate in 8 feet of flood waters for weeks before finally receding. Flood waters are merciless and powerful, moving furniture unmovable by a single individual so that when people return home, the inside isn’t so recognizable, a kind of symbol for how life now feels. Rooms rearranged just as lives have become, making the safe harbor of home treacherous ground.
There are no words to place here that properly speak of the profundity of the devastation that comes with this kind of flooding. Sure, that house was just full of things that can mostly be replaced, but within and beyond that, there is so much that can never be returned or recovered. There are years of life stolen from an entire coastline of people as they figured out what to do next, how to recover. Of course we were grateful for each other and life and safety but reality can be a cruel visitor and overstayed his welcome that year.
The memories are visceral—the smell, the creeping mold, the ashen residue on trees, bushes, houses, the silence of a city shut down except for the whirring of helicopters circling. As I watch the footage of Houston, just as when I saw the Baton Rouge area flooding last year, my heart becomes increasingly and unbearably heavy in helplessness as I grieve for those in the midst of the crisis and grieve all over again for the loss suffered by so many in Katrina. I will work to send aid and to help in any way that I can, but the hardest work of the recovery process is the heartwork. There is no salve for that. It just takes time.
And in this heartache, I think of my own children and the young adults that I teach and the debt I owe them because when it comes down to it, I don’t teach English, I teach human beings.
This has been a very difficult start to the school year. My students returned with eyes opened wide to the hatred spewed in Charlottesville and now find themselves worried about their friends and family in Houston and if in fact we will flood at some point here as well.
They need a safe space. They need a space that shelters them from the storm a bit while they work on building the strength and the courage to help this world and its people. They need a space to ask questions and voice opinions and explore just what it is they feel and how to put it into words. They need their writer’s notebooks.
The writer’s notebook forms the core of my classroom and shapes my students as readers, writers, and thinkers in this world. In our classroom, the notebook is very clearly defined as a place to play with words and ideas—a place to find what is important in our lives and to put a voice to it. It is a place to venture into uncharted territory as a writer without fear of failure or a deduction of points. It is theirs, becoming a place that steers young writers toward the writing that will mean something to them—writing that will engage them—that they will compose because it feels important and not because of the points the piece might earn.
Yes, students receive points for this work. I ask them to pick five selections every nine weeks for me to read. However, I use this time with their work as an opportunity to lift up what they are doing so well and to encourage them along the way. A small note of “I know you say you aren’t a writer, but the ideas you express in this entry would suggest otherwise—they are so important and deserve expression and attention” can offer a boost of confidence to a writer that is changing. When the work isn’t graded in the same way we often have to grade so much of what they turn in, there is freedom for me to seek the good and to illuminate it.
The first responses in these notebooks are often prompted by poetry that I have shared with them. Poetry is rich in content, compact, varied in topic and style, and it is replete with carefully selected and organized words and punctuation chosen to create and deepen meaning. Each poem extends ideas that resonate deeming themselves worthy of consideration as well as a lesson to a writer. I ask students to simply respond in any way they are so moved. Some will draw. Others will analyze the work. Still others will offer opinions or begin a creative piece or something else entirely. And then we have time to share and discuss for anyone willing or moved to do so. In these first few days of school, as we have begun to create this safe notebook space, my students have responded to “Choose” by Carl Sandburg, “Jerusalem” by Naomi Shihab Nye, and “The Story, Around the Corner” also by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Their responses have astounded me, as they do every year. I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but every time my students and I begin to venture into this space I find myself awestruck as students volunteer to share some of what they have written with the class. Students of every level are working with challenging texts, and giving the freedom to do so in a way that means something to them, yields some pretty jaw dropping results. They have been bold and honest and revealed so much of how this world has shaped them as thinkers and as people. I think they have even surprised themselves.
Tomorrow, though, I will simply write the word “water” on the board and ask them to write. Some might write about how they hate drinking water because it is flavorless, others might write about how they love to swim or about how tired they are of the incessant rain, but there will also be those who will use this space to explore the deluge and flooding occurring so nearby and affecting loved ones and maybe even a vague Katrina memory still whispers inside and needs to be expressed. They will have safe space to do this work and listening ears all around if it will help them to share.
This is the least I can do. There will be more, but we begin in the safety of our notebooks.
(and this Natasha Tretheway poem keeps rising in my head. It is a part of a post-Katrina tribute to the Mississippi Gulf Coast…“Believer”)