"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

the day the earth moved

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

i was wrapping up my lesson today and collecting assessments, trying to quiet everyone down, when i felt a sudden jolt. the ground felt like it was moving in waves. it was amazingly wavy. i never thought an earthquake would feel like this. i didn't notice shaking, like i'd expected, but felt it most in my feet and my legs. it felt like i was getting dizzy from the feet up, my head and torso were where i wanted them, but i felt my feet moving on their own. i thought i could hear the earth moving, the whole world around me creaking.

at the same time, i have 30 young pairs of eye focused completely on me. i see their expressions changing to mirror mine. i imagine my face and the look of horror that must be on it.

as soon as i realize what is actually happening, as soon as i can find the words to put to it, the kids are already there too, screaming "earthquake" and doing the drill we practiced just the other day. duck and cover! everyone scrambles to fit under a tiny middle school desk and get themselves as close to the ground as possible. i make sure all the kids are properly tucked under their desks and then dive under one myself, trying to calm everyone down as i try to gather my own thoughts. "keep calm, even tone, don't panic or you'll make things worse." the kids are screaming, some of them are shaking their desks. a voice comes over the loudspeaker, "this is not a drill." how could this be a drill?! i wonder. some things you can fake, but i can feel the tile and concrete rippling below me and rest assured, the last thing i was thinking was that this was a drill!

crouched under my desk, my shins flat against the classroom tile, a million thoughts are rushing thru my head: first, amazement at the seismic waves, which in that moment, i can actually feel. when i'd imagined earthquakes before this, i always thought of – what else? – the movies. i thought of The Land Before TIme, the earth erupting and shifting around itself, huge columns of earth and rock jutting out around me, huge chasms appearing suddenly to divide and separate people. i was imagining a textbook hypothetical earthquake – the kind that separates populations and results in genetic drift.

instead, what i actually experienced was quite different, and thus probably more terrifying and confusing ("what is this strange feeling?") but in retrospect, my confusion was merely a product of my fascination, my pleasant surprise: here was something far more pleasant and less violent, more a rocking than a shaking. never would i have imagined such fluidity – i could feel the building's materials actually undulating under my body. i can feel the pulsing of earth and steel and concrete below me, and for a moment i am painfully aware of the earth's mantle and the layers of pulsing magna on which all of us float – unaware – everyday.

then, sheer wonder at the elasticity of the ground below me. i can practically feel it stretching with the moving earth. things i once thought were solid, immovable, dense and hard were now apparently bending with the flow of the earth below. i'm amazed and surprised by the newness of my understanding of the earth and the materials around me, interacting with and witnessing it in new capacities as i wait for the ground to split around me.

i imagine the earth opening up and swallowing us whole. i imagine my parents freaking out when they hear or see it on the news. i think about Lexington, KY and that sweet foundation of limestone on which it sits, and how growing up i checked earthquakes off my mental list of things i had to worry about/ natural disasters/ unfortunate ways to die, b/c limestone bedrock basically meant 2 things: 1) SOLID AS A ROCK; and 2) strong horses (limestone = calcium-enriched bluegrass = strong and healthy bones). i tell my students Fernando and Lillie about it on the way back from the gym blacktop to our classroom, and they tell me that KY sounds nice right now (no truer words, Fernando. no truer words...)

i remember kneeling on the floor, seeing all my summer school students huddled down with me, looking to me with large, pleading eyes, watching to see what i did. never have i been so scared or worried, feeling at once that child-like instinct to look for protection, to call home, to curl up in a fetal position, but also feeling suddenly adult, the gaze of 30 children's eyes.

i remember, as i felt the rippling earth below me, thinking that we'd gotten the drill all wrong: in an earthquake, the ground is the last place you want to be. i kept thinking, if the ground splits and opens up beneath me, i don't want to be close to it, i want to be by the ceiling, dangling monkey-style from the fluorescent lights, watching it all open up beneath me. sudden panic gripped me: in all other situations in which safety is an issue, your first instinct is to run, to get as far away from the thing causing you stress and harm as possible. crouching on the floor, i realized that i was staring my immediate danger in the face. i was basically eskimo-kissing it. the earth – the way it was moving, these disconcerting waves, the unpredictability, the unknowing of how long it would last, how bad it would be, what to do besides wait – had me trapped. i was struck by a sense of paralysis, vulnerability. i could run, but no matter where i went, my feet would be on the ground. i cursed gravity for keeping me earth-bound.

i manage to get the students lined up quietly inside the room. we walk single-file to the blacktop in the middle of Watts, me counting students and accounting for everyone (my heart nearly stops when i remember that i let Javier go to the bathroom just moments before the earthquake, and the thought of him getting hurt or lost in the chaos is enough for me to justify a stricter no-bathroom policy). we walk onto the steaming blacktop, and sit down in a group. an administrator comes by to take down numbers and names, while students are clamoring for information. teachers are frantically calling relatives and loved ones on cell phones, only to find the lines jammed. i try to keep my students calm by talking to all of them. they ask me if i'm scared. i tell them i'm being honest when i say i've never been more scared in my life, but that i also knew things were going to be ok, and that i'm glad it happened at school, that it's probably the safest place to be right now. they begin telling me how scared they were. Kevin is anxious to run home and see if his granny is ok. Miguel wants to go, he doesn't want classes for the rest of the day. Deandre is complaining about the hot hot blacktop and how his legs are burning. i tell all the kids to pull out their journals and write about the earthquake today, how they felt, what went thru their minds, to write about it so they could remember years from now and tell their kids about the day they were at summer school with their new teacher Ms. Lee when an earthquake hit. i told them that this made today special, that because of what happened today, i would never ever forget them, or forget Markham, because we shared this scary moment together. i told my students that when i got home, i was going to write a journal just like the one i was asking them to write, so i could share it with my own kids when i had them.

Lonnisha looks at me and asks "do you have kids, Ms. Lee?" i pause, i smile, and i say, "not yet, Lonnisha. but some day, i hope i do. and i will tell them about my first earthquake, and about all of you..."



Rae Jin Devine said...

I came to Ohio a short bit before the major quakes some time ago.

Very nice work Ms. Lee, particularly the crowd control via writing.

I'm dealing with some rather bothersome red tape ATM but I should be at Miami within two weeks and will deliver your greetings as best I can.

Always a pleasure reading your words,

Brian said...

Glad everything turned out ok and no one was hurt.