On Monday we returned to our school building, P.S. 317 Waterside Children’s Studio School. Our re-opening offers a spot of light — powered by newly returned electricity and our unbroken hope — in a still dark, recovering peninsula.
We discussed the impending return on our final afternoon at August Martin High School where we had relocated for the past two weeks because of the storm. Students sat in a circle talking through both what they were thankful for and their expectations for what was to come. Their reflections were both light, with talk of gleefully conquering old playgrounds and celebrating with pizza parties, and thoughtful, as students worried about classmates and friends they continued to miss, about a neighborhood physically and emotionally scarred by Sandy and about their families beginning to put back together the pieces of their interrupted lives.
As we talked about the long journey that would come while we worked to rebuild the Rockaways and our school family, the children without hesitation or question shared their understanding of what was to come.
“Resilience is not letting fear take over your mind”, one started us off. “Never be afraid of a challenge,” another quickly added on. “No matter what happens, you can’t give up. You just have to keep on going on.”
As I look out my apartment window at our school building — at the shells of the burnt homes of our families, the countless sanitation trucks and response workers carting away the remnants of people’s homes and histories — I am overwhelmed by the ability of seven year olds to capture the enduring nature of the human spirit, even amidst tragic devastation.
I think back to the first days of relocation after Sandy. Shellshocked children walked in from the biting winds to the enveloping embrace of staff members. Some were bundled tight against the elements while others appeared to be wearing whatever they could find, an oversized sweatshirt or many layers of borrowed clothes. Of a student body of about 450 students, 85 walked in the door that first day at August Martin. They were brought there on foot from nearby shelters, by car from the homes of relatives, and by bus from their stricken community, where they were still living without heat or power.
Over the next week, as teachers called families and knocked on doors, the number of students grew to over 200 students. Staff offered the comfort of familiar routines, pressing forward with academic instruction, while we also provided a safe, nurturing space for the children to share their experiences, to be comforted by friends and teachers, and to ask questions about what the future would hold.
For the most part, our students threw themselves quickly back into their learning, thrilled to be in warm classrooms surrounded by books, paper, and pens. Evidence of the trauma we’d lived through peeked between the cracks in this return to normalcy, seen in unexpected tears, stories about storms and fires, and in a resistance to leaving each afternoon for cold, damp, dark, powerless homes.
All of it — the tears and the strength — from some of the smallest and perhaps the strongest survivors of the storm gave our school family spirit enough to warm the coldest of days, and endurance enough to carry us through the most damaging of storms.