May There Be Pens, May There Be Paper

Sarah DeBacher | May 21, 2013

“Writing is both a challenge and an extreme exigency—that is, it is both called forth by and constitutes the trauma. But writing both exceeds and is inadequate to the task; it is both unavoidable and impossible.”— Peter and Maureen Daly Goggin, Trauma and the Teaching of Writing (2005).

In my attic there is box containing hundreds of magnets I collected from curb-side refrigerators after Hurricane Katrina. I’d been fortunate enough to have a home to return to, but when I was allowed to return to New Orleans in October of 2005, the city was virtually unrecognizable. The visual landscape was so disrupted, so disruptive, that it made its way into horrifying underwater nightmares I couldn’t shake. Even when I dreamt lucidly, I was unable to wake myself, my subconscious seemingly aware that the waking-world would provide no comfort. What on earth was this? How on earth could this have happened? I spent my days in a kind of stupor, and yet the collection of refrigerator magnets and documentation of their sites gave me a kind of purpose. I had no idea what I would do with the magnets. I still don’t. I just needed to do something.

School began. I got busy with the work of teaching—an immense comfort and immense burden, both. My classes took place online, but internet connectivity was spotty, at best. Regular power outages plunged us into darkness and we shuffled out onto stoops to visit with others who’d returned, to share stories about how we’d “made out in the storm.”

My students had it much worse than I did. Before that semester began, I’d grown accustomed to the usual range of excuses for late work: dead grandmothers (so many dead grandmothers!), flat tires, printers without ink, etc. But this semester the excuses punched me in the gut. “I lost my job, my home, everything. Can I please have an extension on Essay 2?” Yes. Yes! I remember feeling like my every teacherly choice that semester was Really Effing Important. What would I assign? How could I respond ethically and empathetically to students whose lives had been—like mine—upended entirely? (I wrote about the experience of teaching after Hurricane Katrina in an article that appeared in Reflections in 2007.)

Today I’ve been thinking about the texts I produced in the immediate aftermath of Katrina (although I’ve learned that a more accurate way of putting it is “in the aftermath of the failure of the federal levees.) I’ve been thinking about that box of magnets and the blogging I did and the writing I assigned, and the emails I sent, and how my words helped me heal but also plunged me right back into the depths of despair, too.

I’ve been thinking of the people of Moore, Oklahoma, whose lives were similarly upended yesterday by a tornado that killed children in a school. (Is there any worse place for death to occur than in a school? And how is it that schools seem to be, increasingly, the sites of horror?) I’ve been thinking about how writing can be used to help the people of Moore heal (as writing helped me heal, post-Katrina.) And I’ve been thinking, too, about the ways that writing can inflict harm. I know this because I inflicted emotional wounds upon my own students and myself back in 2005 when I assigned “Katrina narratives” (Essay 2) to students not yet ready to write them.

Judith Lewis Herman writes in her book Trauma and Recovery:

“Traumatic events call into questions basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis” (51).

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The shattering, the breaching, the undermining, the violating that the people of Moore, Oklahoma and the children of Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary schools went through yesterday make writing seem like, like what? I can picture it being necessary to a child who has lost everything but has been handed a pencil and notebook. I can see it being like my blogs in that way—an act vital to reconstruction of the self, to survival.

But I can also see how writing after a trauma like the tornados in Moore could do harm. A well-intended “write about the tornado” assignment could hurt the author unready to narrate. A due date, a grade—these artifices and impositions enact their own traumas upon the writer and her text.

Barry Lane says that what we need if we are to make our classrooms sites of better writing are “time, space, and choice.” I can think of no better advice to offer the teachers of Moore, Oklahoma than Lane’s. Give your students time. Give them notebooks and pens and a place to write—one that’s safe—and let them tell the stories they are dying to get out.

I will revisit the box of magnets one day. I will re-read my blog. And maybe I will turn those texts into Something More than what they are. But they were for me, at the time and place of my own trauma, great sources of comfort.

I hope with every fiber of my being that the people of Moore, Oklahoma heal. I hope that they tell their stories when they are able to. I hope that, in addition to the necessities of shelter, food, and security, there will be pens, there will be paper.