December 20, 2012

By Mary Jane Gould

With a Little Help from Sesame Street: A Teacher’s Story of How Her Class Survived a Storm

Image via blackrose916... on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

I have taught in a K-4 elementary school for twenty-five years.  The school is located at the south end of a beautiful old seaport on the south shore of Long Island, the last exit before Jones Beach.  I lived here for over thirty of my adult years, and as a child, my family docked our boat behind an antique shop on one of the canals.  I remember families of otters swimming in front of the boat and real church baptisms held on the opposite bank from our dock.  A lot of things have changed here over the years, and a lot of the old Victorian homes have seen better times, but it is still a beautiful place.

The school was built fifty years ago, a blue two story building opposite a large park, and at the head of a canal that is home to many restaurants, fishing boats, and party boats.  It is a popular Long Island destination especially in summer.  From the classrooms, you can hear the horns blow as the fishing boats go out for half day charters in the early afternoon.  Mergansers, gannets, and Canadian geese spend time in the park across from the school.  Sometimes you can spot what looks like a football floating on the canal and upon second look realize that it is a seal.  I have always felt lucky to be here.

Several times in my experience, the moon and a storm combined to cause flooding that necessitated the evacuation of our school to a nearby school for the day.  The water would come up in the street quickly and cover everything from the front step of the school, go across the park, and right up to the houses on the far side of the park. The water never came higher than that and receded before the next day.  We would be put in big yellow school buses with our class wondering if our cars would be OK upon our return.  We would spend flood day crowded into another schools gym or cafeteria and have an adventure to tell that evening.  The homeowners in the area were used to sump pumps and moving things of value to a higher floor.  Some had had their homes raised up with government grant money made available to alleviate the flooding problem.

Image via spleeness on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Sandy was different.  No one who had survived years of storms safely at home in the past could have imagined what was to happen.  Homes were lifted right off their foundations only to be slammed down again by the next wave causing beams to shatter.  The boatyards had stacks of shrink-wrapped boats ready for winter, and these were strewn for blocks, broken and causing destruction to homes in their path.  The father of one little girl in my class told me about watching a dumpster that was being used in a renovation several doors away, start to float toward his home.  It got snagged between a tree and a mailbox. Eventually the tree gave way and waves caused the dumpster to smash into the side of his house repeatedly.  Water in the house was already half way up toward the second floor where he had sent his wife and children.  The siding on the house was torn off, but fortunately the wall of the house held.  If it had broken through, the family might not have made it.

I cannot think of any family from our town that was not affected in some way.  People here are hardworking and if they own their home, it is their only asset.  No one has vacation homes, and many were renting basement apartments, now flooded.  Many parents work at jobs that pay by the hour and had to miss work due to the storm.  Others have no job to go back to because the business is too damaged.  Many have extra people staying in their apartment.  Some are staying with friends and family away from this community. One grandmother told me that she drives her grandchildren one hour from Suffolk County in the morning and the children do not get back to her home until eight in the evening.  Then they start dinner, homework, and a new bedtime routine, only to wake early for another long drive back to school.

Those who stayed have lived for weeks without heat or electricity.  The damage caused by the salt water requires that every home in the flood area be inspected before electricity or gas can be restored.  Homes have stickers posted- red for condemned, yellow for needing an electrician, and green for OK to restore.  Some have a yellow sticker because they lack the funds to hire an electrician to do the necessary repairs.  11% of families here live below the poverty level.  There is a large immigrant population where language is a barrier to dealing with FEMA and insurers.  The day after Thanksgiving, I did manage to understand when a mother hugged me and told me that she had no way to provide hot food for her family.  This was a month after the storm.

Image via CasualCapture on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Six inches of water entered the first floor of the school.  There are levels 1, 2, and 3 contaminants in the water, 3 being the worst.  Level 3 contaminated water entered in the school and wicked up the walls about one foot.  This caused asbestos tiles that had been tight to lift up, the gym floor to buckle, and lots and lots of shelves of books to be ruined.  And then we could anticipate mold growth.  The school needed extensive repairs, followed by testing of the air quality before it could be used again.

Children were out of class for two weeks and then relocated to the four other elementary schools in the town – one grade to each of the buildings.  Teachers were given a short time to go into our classrooms and place post-it notes on items we considered essential to our work during the relocation.  We were not to disturb anything, and items we marked were cleaned, packed and moved to the new school.  The instruction was to think like you were packing for air travel and to try to pack light.  I followed orders, and found that my age was an advantage because I was able to recreate most things I needed using chart paper and magic markers.  Two days into my new space they delivered a portable blackboard and I was back in business.  I was prepared to carry on with the academics, but soon found that the emotional needs of students and parents after Sandy had to be of first concern.

Armed with lists, I did some detective work and was able to reach most of my families after the storm and learn of their situations – who had lost their home, who was without power and heat, and who was housing friends and relatives.  After hearing the stories of survival their parents told, I knew that the children would have a lot to share when we arrived at our relocation school.  I constructed microphones for all the K and 1 classes from tin foil, duct tape, and toilet paper tubes.  That first day, every child had an opportunity to speak into the microphone and tell his/her story.

I also emailed Sesame Street for help, and boy did I get help!  First I was sent several copies of the dvd Sesame Street Gets Through a Storm along with discussion points.  In this episode Big Bird’s nest is destroyed in a hurricane and everyone in the neighborhood offers support and helps him rebuild. My first graders thought that they were too old for Sesame Street at first, but there was a real connection as they watched and heard Big Bird voice some of their feelings about the storm.  Some of my children are now afraid of the dark and hesitant to take risks.  They spoke of wearing their “other” clothes, meaning they only had two outfits. Others came in modeling beautiful new donated coats.  All of them had been trying so hard to be good during a tough time – giving up their bed to a relative, or missing favorite toys.  Big Bird’s voicing of his feelings gave permission for them to open up.  Several hours after viewing the dvd, one of my brightest little girls took me aside and confided that she felt like Big Bird; that she was mad at the hurricane too.  This dvd gave us an opportunity to address the emotional impact of Sandy.

Big Bird also had his teddy bear Radar with him.  We spoke about sleep problems that most children said they have had since the storm.  Another day the class brought in their favorite sleep toy and showed them, and spoke about how they help us comfort ourselves.  One boy’s father drew his bear for him to bring in because the real bear was lost in the storm.  Then everyone drew their bad dreams and threw the pictures into the trash with great ceremony.  Hopefully time and sharing their fears with the class will help everyone get better sleep.

The adults are trying so hard to return their homes and families back to normal, that they haven’t allowed themselves to address their own emotions after this life -changing storm.  I found parents to be fragile and in need of comfort as well as their children.  Any small delay at dismissal would have parents rushing in to scoop their child up in their arms.  Children would report a minor playground incident and the parent would be at school early the next morning rather than sending a note or making a phone call.  I got the feeling that it was a delayed reaction –“ I was powerless against this storm and I almost lost my child.  I’m going to save them now.”  Parents who had coped with so much just couldn’t handle any extra stress.  Again Sesame Street had an answer for us.  Copies of Here for Each Other: Helping Families After Emergencies were sent to every home in my class.  This booklet helps parents talk to their child about what has happened, and to convey a sense of hope that things will look up again.  It had pictures of favorite Sesame Street characters for the children to color as well.

I shared all the wonderful resources from Sesame Street with teachers from our host school. Their students are also from this community and also survived Sandy.  The host teachers, while welcoming to us relocated teachers, were inconvenienced by our presence.  Benjamin Franklin’s quote about fish and guests both stinking after three days is only too true, so I was happy to have something to share that was of such value.

We are back home now. The closets had to be removed due to water and most of the supplies were piled in boxes. On the Monday the children returned we sang “We’ll be Home for Christmas,” and exchanged hugs and happy tears. It was a great day. It has been an adventure and an adjustment but it is still a big step back toward normalcy. The math and dental materials from Sesame Street that I returned with have been enjoyed by all. Thanks so much for being a wonderful resource for my children.

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