Mi María: Professor Chansky’s Story
At 2am on September 20, our electricity cut out. My neighborhood was without power for ninety-six days.
On October 30—in the dark—classes resumed at the university and I returned to teaching in a fractured, post-hurricane landscape. My first assignment was a María memoir: I asked students to write a personal narrative intended for us to reconnect, to allow them a space to share, to be heard and witnessed. I remember coming home after sunset, igniting the camp stove to make dinner, and then sitting down to read those storm narratives by candlelight.
In their essays—handwritten on notebook paper—students described watching winds peel back the roofs of their homes, tear off walls, smash windows, and blow in doors; about family members holding hands as they ran from houses that were falling down around them. One young woman wrote about sitting on her front porch the morning after the deluge, watching her neighbors bury in their backyard two family members who did not survive the night. They talked about food riots, gas lines, water born illnesses, the lack of drinking water, and living hungry.
Feeling helpless in the face of so much trauma, I confronted the most accessible problem—food—and planned a breakfast for my students. On the morning of the meal, however, many students sat at their desks and would not approach the table that I had covered with anything I could gather from our still meagerly-stocked market. Finally, they explained: Professor, we have nothing to give you in return.
I had convinced almost all of the students to eat and was sitting amongst them chatting when one latecomer entered the room. She did not immediately see the full table as it was out of her line of sight, off to the left of the classroom door. Her friends pointed to it and she froze for a moment. I saw her eyes get wide and she began to cry, her whole body shaking. I soothed her and fed her while she told me that her house had been destroyed and she was sleeping on a friend’s floor. She was unable to find any formal assistance, so she had been buying one box of Ritz crackers per week and allowing herself one roll of crackers each day. The food in our class was the most she had seen in over a month.
Thanks in large part to donations from kind individuals (not government organizations), I fed that one student and several others for the rest of the semester. Seven months later, we continue to organize on our own and work to help the many still in need. Our school foodbank, for example, typically feeds 100 students and now feeds over 1000.
These are the types of stories that don’t make it into the mass media, the ones that are too small to be noticed, the ones waiting to be told.