February 22nd 2012 is the first anniversary of the devastating Christchurch earthquake. A tough post this one, but it’s been brewing in my head for a while and it’s probably better that it comes out.
At the end of 2011, I’d been on placement in a North Island school when the September quake hit, and the next week in class we discussed evacuations, emergencies and earthquakes. We wrote letters, we conducted science experiments on seismic forces, and we covered all the relevant sections of What’s the plan, Stan? I felt out of touch and very distant from my family and friends living in my hometown of Christchurch, but my family and I moved home again just in time for Christmas. We ate souvlaki and shopped in the city centre and celebrated Cantabrian community spirit.
At 12:51pm on February 22nd 2011, I was sitting at my office desk, skyping with My University study-buddies around the country when the 6.3 quake rolled through. I hid under my desk and hoped that my children, at school and at child-care, were safe and not frightened. I text my family and friends to make sure everyone was ok. I went outside and checked my chimney. Then I got a Skype message from a buddy in Wellington telling me buildings had collapsed and people were injured, and worse. It focused me. I collected my children. My fiancé didn’t come home for more than a few hours over the following days – he was managing the catering service that was feeding the thousands of people that went into action helping others after the disaster. The days became a haze of streaming news reel and keeping my children close, as I waited for names of the missing and deceased to become public.
For weeks afterwards it was difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time, as every vibration or noise sent my body into tense readiness to react. Every trip to the supermarket was accompanied with escape plans, a list of emergency kit supplies, and a fully charged cellphone, and, after a while, it became normal. Normal to not sleep for more than a few hours at a time, to take a study break every 5 minutes because I had lost my train of thought, to constantly check news reports for confirmed identities of people who had lost their lives. The updates condemning my childhood home to the red-zone, the demolition of my high-school, my first flat, my first workplace – they came as additional blows which knocked the energy out of me, the scale of damage was just too much to comprehend.
I headed out to my 4-week practicum placement in the midst of all this, as a nervous wreck. I forgot to take in lunch or lesson plans one day, forgot to photocopy resources another. I had given myself a stomach ulcer. I wasn’t coping at all.
But I had a wonderful moment one day, on practicum, when the students and I wrote poetry together, about the earthquake.
It began as a group brainstorm – I scribed all their suggestions on the interactive whiteboard; what could you see, hear and feel (inside and out) and what you did. Their willingness to share and the way they described the event was inspiring. We wrote a poem together and called it ‘Tuesday’. It was a safe way to share our fear without being scared.
For the rest of the year a copy of that poem sat on my desk, as a reminder to recognize my fear and to keep going; and as a reminder to me that when you’re working with children you can’t be the one losing your head – you need to be able to role-model and reassure. My practicum kids had taught me about resilience. I have a whole unit plan now on disasters, but my session on poetry and making sense out of how we feel, is by far my favourite.
Here is a video on a magical Arts based unit used in Christchurch schools after the earthquake. May we remember the 185 who were lost – and support those who remain.