Hurricane Sandy and Resilience

I teach at a high school in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, a narrow peninsula surrounded on three sides by the waters of Sheepshead Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Dozens of my colleagues live in and around South Brooklyn, the Rockaways, Staten Island, and the South Shore of Long Island. Hundreds of our students and their families live in these areas. Hurricane Sandy devastated our school community.

You’ve read about the houses lost, the families displaced, and the hundreds of thousands still living without heat or electricity, without beds of their own. Maybe you’ve heard about Governor Cuomo ordering students to return to unheated schools, even as we watched this winter’s first snowfall turn to frozen slush. This hurricane has given us enough horror stories to last a lifetime.

I want to talk about resilience. In ecological terms, resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb trauma and disturbance, and then recover. Since the hurricane, I’ve learned that the school ecosystem I inhabit every day has tremendous resilience. Teachers whose homes were destroyed by the storm have taught lessons on the science of hurricanes. Others have worked tirelessly to collect and deliver supplies for people in Far Rockaway, Gerritsen Beach, and other ravaged communities. Guidance counselors have helped shell-shocked students process this catastrophe. Parents have organized carpools and opened their homes to students who now have none. Students have arrived early and left late, helping staff fill and distribute care packages for affected families. Administrators worked day and night to ensure that staff were informed both about Sandy’s impact on our community and what we could do to help. We are far from recovery, but all of this work has helped us absorb the trauma of the hurricane and maintain our sense of community.

To my knowledge, all of this work was organized by school staff, students, and families at the local level. We received no support from the Department of Education and, to be fair, should have expected none. Our schools chancellor, after all, has prioritized giving schools “the power to punish” teachers accused of wrongdoing over renovating toxic school environments. Our mayor has reveled in the wholesale destruction of swaths of our city school system and taken every possible opportunity to attack city teachers. Just last week, his administration channeled massive amounts of resources into restoring the New York Stock Exchange while children in the Rockaways wandered dark streets, looking for a place to sleep.

Despite their negligence, our school is resilient. Students who hadn’t bathed in a week showed up to read Julius Caesar with their classmates. Teachers whose supplies were lost in the flood created new lessons by candlelight. Parents whose cars were swept out to sea rode the bus with their children to make sure they got to school safely. Resilience is a remarkable thing, but we need to make sure we see things clearly.

During Tuesday’s elections, voters in the embattled Rockaways received another slap in the face as they arrived to find their polling place without heat or power. Thousands of voters lined up in the cold and endured the harsh conditions so that they could take some small part in the political process. Many pundits described these lines of freezing voters as a testament to our democracy, perhaps even as a symbol of that democracy’s resilience. Writing on facebook, an acquaintance responded to this type of thinking:

“People waiting in line is not a tribute to our great democratic system. It’s a tribute to the people waiting in line. It also says that our system sucks.”

I’ve seen remarkable resilience at my school this week, but I’ve also seen tremendous anger and frustration. We are proud of our ability to persevere, but we’d rather not have to. Hundreds of our students and staff remain without heat, power, or hot water. Others are displaced, traveling longer distances to school, sleeping on floors at friends’ or relatives’ houses. We are overwhelmed and exhausted. We are sick and tired of negligent city officials claiming to care for our schools when their actions show us, again and again, that they’d hardly notice if the storm swept us all away.

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