Thursday, September 05, 2013

When I Was A Hero

This video of a mother and child reacting to an earthquake. It's cool and short.

My daughter Josephine was 4 and we were at the Latona 3-5's Cooperative Preschool, temporarily located in a couple of classrooms in a former high school that had already undergone an earthquake retrofit and was at the same time the temporary home for an elementary school while their usual building was being made earthquake "safe."

One of the stops on my recent speaking tour Down Under was Christchurch, New Zealand.  In February, 2011, the city was struck by a 6.3 earthquake that caused significant damage to the city, killing 185 people. This is a photo of what's left of the Christchurch Cathedral, which, like many of the city's buildings was rendered uninhabitable.

I was walking in the hallway, returning from the playground, just before 11 a.m. Josephine was holding one of my hands, her friend Erin the other. We were right outside the classroom door when the shaking started. It was the beginning of what we now call the Nisqually Earthquake, a 6.8 event that is one of the most powerful ever recorded in our area. I knew right away what was happening, so I ushered the girls, along with a couple passing first graders, into our room and under a table.

This house of flowers, built in front of the cathedral speaks of hope and renewal.

The world was shaking, but I was completely calm -- much like this mother appears in the video. I was alert, for sure, wary of my surroundings.

Josephine asked, scooting under the table on her bottom, "What's happening?"

I said, "It's an earthquake."

"I don't feel it."

I surveyed the room. I could see most of our cooperative parents in there, as well as my mentor Teacher Chris David. The children were out of sight, safely under the classroom tables. The building shook. I made eye contact with Chris as well as several other parents. We seemed like we knew what we were doing, not panicking, looking out for the children. As one, we started clapping, just as we had during our earthquake drills, making it just like how we had practiced. It was only after the shaking stopped that we adults realized we'd done nothing to protect ourselves.

Afterwards we gathered the children and took them to the parking lot according to plan.

Josephine asked, "What happened?"

I said, "We had an earthquake."

"I didn't feel it."

We had this exchange several times over the next few minutes. It was if she felt left out.

No one seemed particularly upset. None of the kids were crying. I was joking around with the other parents. There was a certain buzz, of course, but in the particulars we were behaving just as we had in our drills, right down to kids goofing off and our hokey adult gallows humor.

More than two years later, the earthquake, and its aftershocks, are still a significant presence in this city. I was told that they're still not even done tearing down the buildings that need to come down, let alone rebuilding in earnest.

Office workers gathered in an adjacent parking lot. From them we heard wailing and shrieks, shouting and panic. We, on the other hand, parents and teachers and children, were just talking, the way we always did. Within 10 minutes every single child had been retrieved by his or her parent, with the exception of Erin who was riding with us that day. The plan was to have lunch at Erin's house with her mom Donna and newborn baby, which is what we did. While the children played, Donna and I exchanged earthquake stories.

At one point I said, "I was expecting you to come pick up Erin."

But the city is re-emerging and re-building. This is a kind of downtown shopping mall built from shipping containers.  

And Donna answered, "She was planning to ride with you and I didn't want to change the plan."

That's what we did that day: calmly stuck to our plans. It's the time in my life when I most felt like a hero.

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Anonymous said...

What a lovely story Tom, I saw you during your recent tour and have found you so inspiring! I also recently visited Christhurch, such a great city trying so hard to get everything back together!

Laurie said...

Will you explain the "clapping" part of the earthquake drill/reality? Were you clapping in a rhythm to take kids attention off what was happening?

Teacher Tom said...

@Laurie . . . We'd gotten in the habit of clapping for ourselves after our drills (both fire and earthquake), I guess as a sort of celebration that we'd "saved" ourselves. When the real earthquake struck, we did it as well, because that's the way we'd practiced it. I think it would have felt incomplete without the clapping -- although, none of us ever talked about it. That's just what we did.