Saturday morning. 8:00 am. My alarm had not gone off, but I was already waking. For some reason, people had started texting around 7:30 and the familiar ding kept going off in the background. The night before, it had rained harder than I had ever seen. I later learned 7 inches had fallen in 45 minutes. As I slowly rose, my hand automatically went to the phone. As I read the first text, my heart stopped.
The text went on to tell the names of the kids. Immediately, I called my fire fighter neighbor to confirm what were at this point rumors. He not only confirmed, but told how he had found one of the children. Things went into something of a daze. Four children, two of whom were at my campus, had drowned. I knew one of the other two and the grandmother as well. I immediately began praying for their family as my mind conjured up images of these beautiful children.
One of them, a kindergartner, would give me a big hug every time I went into her classroom. She wore her hair in ponytails and always smiled. Her 1st grade brother was even closer. He had a rough start to the year and I saw him almost every day. Our team worked long and hard with him and finally he was not only progressing, but experiencing success in the classroom. During the rough times, we would sometimes take walks through the building, talking about whatever was on his mind. Other times, we would just sit in my office in quiet solitude until he had calmed down enough to return to class. He played football. I found out late in the season and made it a point to go to a game. It was there I discovered he was the star running back. There is nothing quite like watching 1st graders play football wearing helmets that are almost as big as they are. As the year progressed and his behavior improved, our interactions became less common, but I would still stop by his class to say hello and give him a hug or a high five as I told him I was proud of him.
It was 9:00 am and, feeling overwhelmed, I gave into my son's requests to drive around and look at the damage. We quickly discovered a row of businesses that had been flooded as well. Taking my wife home, my son and I decided to go and see how we could help. The area where my students lived was in chaos, so we chose to spend several hours helping clean out a restaurant. Later, I went back to the children's neighborhood and offered my assistance. By this time, most of the families had the big things out of their houses. I visited with several families who recognized me from school but feeling as though I was in the way, I returned home.
The next afternoon, after church, I went to the campus and met with the admin team as we worked out a plan for Monday morning. After everyone left, I finally walked to both of the kids' classrooms. Upon entering each, I broke down. These were the first tears I shed, but not the last. As I looked at the empty seats, it hit me that these two little ones I had spent the better part of a year with were not coming back. I was thankful no one else was in the building as I broke down that afternoon.
Monday was a blur. Our school counselor visited with each of the children's classes while I coordinated outside counselors and connected them with kids. We had asked our other teachers to talk to their classes about the tragedy. Most were able to, but a couple just could not get through it. I stepped in at their request and talked with the children about the events of the weekend as we discussed what death meant. I worked hard to help the children realize that it is okay to be emotional (sad, angry, hurt) while reassuring them they were safe.
It is amazing how resilient kids can be. By Tuesday morning, most of our 5 to 7 year olds were back into routine. Teachers were (and are) still struggling. That is to be expected. Tuesday night was our annual Art Show and the focus on preparing for it also kept many from dwelling on the sadness we were experiencing.
Today (Wednesday) I had the chance to go to the neighborhood and help with cleanup. People had sacked up many of the belongings from the house and we carried them to dumpsters. It hurt knowing I was throwing away these beloved children's things, but it was also a step in bringing closure. We then went and worked on the house next door, tearing out sheet rock and insulation. After most people had left, I went back to the children's house and walked around inside, silently praying as I thought about the times they spent there. More tears flowed freely. Outside, I discovered a memorial set up by neighbors and just spent time meditating in front of it.
When children die, there are always questions. I have plenty myself, but I don't expect answers. As a Christian, I know that God is in control even when everything else seems to be chaos. I also realize that there may have been human error that helped exacerbate the flooding resulting in these deaths. At the same time, tragedy can result in good. Our community is coming together to support each other in a way that has not happened in a long time. Only time will tell the final result.