It’s been three years since that fateful day in October when Hurricane Michael visited our home in the Florida Panhandle. Three years of progress and setbacks, hope and healing, restoring and rebuilding. Still, the things I remember most from those first few weeks are the simple ones, the ones that made me stop and appreciate the blessed resilience of life and the healing power of love.
It was a week after Hurricane Michael on a Sunday. Our church had been destroyed in the storm, so we gathered in the parking lot with folding chairs, a makeshift stage, and a beaten, but still standing oak tree in the background. Amidst all the wreckage and downed tree limbs we sang and worshipped and praised God for seeing us through the storm.
Our daughters and sons-in-love and our little granddaughter-in-love, Piper, then three, joined us for worship. For most of the hour, Piper sat on my lap, entranced with the music, the blue sky overhead, and the birdsongs that seemed to be accompanying our voices.
Our church had collected donations of clothing, essentials, cleaning supplies, toiletries, diapers, anything offered really, for distribution in the surrounding area after service. We grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, and invited people in the neighborhood to join us and to take what they needed.
I set Piper up in the bed of her dad’s truck with food and drink and for a while she was content to eat and watch all the activity going on around her. I knew that would be short lived. There was just too much going on for a three-year-old to resist!
Sure enough, once her food was gone, she wanted Nona Jen to join her in exploring! We walked around hand-in-hand for a while, Piper pointing out in her childlike wisdom, “The hurricane made that tree fall, Nona Jen.” I told her it had made a lot of trees fall.
She seemed to ponder that for a minute and then she got distracted by a group of kids throwing a ball and wanted to join them.
As I watched them play, I was reminded how resilient kids are. They find joy no matter what the situation. Here they were, in the middle of what amounted to chaos, playing, laughing, being exactly what they were, kids. We could all take a page from their book, I thought.
A few minutes later I noticed Piper break from the group, turning her attention to gathering up the pine cones, leaves, twigs, and moss that littered the parking lot. I followed her, quietly watching as she gathered and then placed little piles of her findings in various locations around the lot. Curious, I asked her what she was doing.
“I’m making new houses for the birds,” she said in her sweet little voice, “Because all their other ones got blowed away.”
I swear my heart melted a little more in that moment. Here was this precious child, having just come through one of the scariest moments of her young life, worried about all the birds and where they were going to live now.
But rather than fretting about it, she simply set about trying to help them, placing her little piles of nests all over that parking lot. It didn’t matter that the birds would likely never use her offerings…or perhaps they would eventually gather those twigs and moss and use them as she’d intended, to make a new home. Who knew? And really, that wasn’t the point.
The thing that mattered was that she had tried. And to me, in the middle of so much uncertainty and heartbreak, that was beautiful, and a simple reminder, that with enough childlike faith and joy, we could all be resilient too.
JN Fenwick | Former U.S. History Teacher and author | May 24, 2021
If you teach them to hate, they will hate. If you teach them to devalue themselves based on the color of their skin, they will judge others based solely on theirs. If you teach them they deserve without the benefit of hard work and sacrifice, they will live their lives with their hands outstretched and their minds closed.
And if you teach them that their country is inherently evil, they will see evil at every turn.
It doesn’t take a genius to know this. It’s truly just common sense. But common sense seems to be in short supply these days. And sadly, we are witnessing firsthand the consequences of just how deeply these destructive ideas have been embedded in our education system, for decades, largely without our awareness, and definitely without our consent.
Unchecked, these dangerous ideologies have spread into almost every area of our country, our government, and our lives. If you don’t believe it, just take a look at the last few years alone. From the pandemic to the riots, to the 2020 election, these narratives have been used to spread disinformation, bolster rioting and violence, perpetuate racism, compromise law enforcement, undermine the Constitution, and destroy the very liberty and freedom that built this country in the first place.
Why? That is the question. The question whose answer we know but are hesitant to articulate out loud. Perhaps because we know that answering out loud will brand us as racist, as evil, as any number of labels used to suppress opposition to the narrative. No one wants to be labeled a racist, after all. Perhaps because as studies have repeatedly shown, Americans are among the least racist people on the planet.
Then why work so determinedly and methodically to ingrain these doctrines in the most impressionable among us? Why start the process at such an early age, targeting children before they’ve even had an opportunity to enjoy their childhoods? Why spend so much time, energy, and countless resources to plant these seeds and then doggedly sew them throughout their entire education, including most especially at the college and university levels?
The answer, in my opinion, is more chilling than not asking the question in the first place.
Is it to remove all roadblocks standing in the way of power? Yes. Is it to maintain power, once gained, in perpetuity? Yes. Is it to expand a voting base? Yes. Is it to increase the wealth of the ones writing and perpetuating the narrative in the first place? Yes. Is it to undermine the history and the foundations of America? Yes. Yes to all of the above, and then some.
Say what you will about the reasons behind the dogma, but the one thing they all have in common is their total disregard for the common good and the demonization of anything and anyone who stands in the way of their agenda.
My first encounter with this unspoken agenda occurred during my undergraduate studies at Florida State University in the early 1990s. In one of my sociology classes, I came face to face with the consequences of not toeing the line.
Thinking that as long as I presented my arguments knowledgeably, backed up with reliable, factual sources, and wrote within the parameters of the APA or MLA style guides, my work would be judged fairly. I was gravely mistaken.
I learned quite quickly that my writing style could be as on point as possible, but that if I were espousing ideas or arguments contradicting my professor’s positions, I would not pass the class. And passing the class was, after all, the endgame.
So, contrary to my better judgment, I swallowed my pride, began regurgitating my professor’s brilliance back at him, and received an “A” along with the three credits I needed towards graduation. No, I didn’t do so mindlessly, I still held on to my principles, but I did bend so that I would not break in the end.
This occurred again and again as I made my way through two more degrees over the course of about a decade, becoming more the “norm” as time went on. In the end, I more than understood that these pieces of paper I had earned were only half the story. The real story was that I had retained my objectivity, my thirst for knowledge, my dedication to critical thinking and reason, and my love of history and my country despite the system’s best attempts to force it out of me.
I count myself lucky. I came from a generation and a family that still held on to those values and beliefs. I was able to withstand the pressure and still retain a clear sense of self.
That’s not been the case for successive generations. No, that innate pull toward self-determination is being rapidly forced out of them, especially the current generation, thanks to social media and the in-your-face consequences of being true to yourself and charting your own path. And as many of the byproducts of the indoctrination are currently running the show, the repercussions are getting worse; dangerously, frighteningly, worse every day.
In his article, American Universities Have Lost Their Prestige, published April 29, 2021, by Real Clear Politics, renowned Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, Victor David Hanson, provides a succinct and compelling look at the post-WWII evolution of America’s university system. And it’s not good.
“Imagine a progressive place that once renounced unconstitutional “loyalty oaths” but now rebrands them as “diversity pledges” and requires reeducation and indoctrination training,” states Hanson. “Imagine a place where “diversity” is the professed institutional ethos, while studies reveal that liberal faculty outnumber their conservative counterparts by over 10 to 1.”
And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. From politicking from the lectern to restrictions on freedom of speech and suspension of constitutionality, Hanson uncovers the disquieting reality of what it truly means to get a liberal education today.
In his book, Is College Worth It?, former U. S. Secretary of Education and author, William Bennet, demonstrates how higher education is failing our students on multiple fronts. “Higher education isn’t solely about financial returns,” explains Bennet, “the first duty of any school is education.” Bennet goes on to expose “the frighteningly paltry amount of learning taking place on some college campuses.”
So if learning isn’t taking place, what exactly is?
As a former United States History teacher, I can only answer that question from my own experience. I think it’s safe to say that all teachers, no matter the level at which we teach, come to the lectern with our own experiences, values, and beliefs, political or otherwise. However, our own ideologies are not what we’re hired to teach. In a sense, we have a captive audience before us, made up of young impressionable minds. To tamper with these minds for our own gain or to advance our own agendas is a sacrilege and a dark mark on this otherwise noble profession.
I understood this from the outset, mainly because, as a student, I had experienced that very attack on my own mind, and I vowed not to perpetuate it moving forward. My job was to teach my students history, not just within the confines of the books in which it was written, but also how to think critically, to ask questions, to challenge the status quo, to form their own opinions, and to seek knowledge, not as an endgame, but as a life-long endeavor.
Punishing students, whether overtly or covertly for not toeing the line, for questioning what they are being told, for asserting their own individuality, and yes, their own character, is not only wrong, it’s extremely dangerous.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is just one example of exactly how dangerous it’s becoming. First introduced in the 1970s, as an idea originating at Harvard Law School, CRT has become part of mainstream academia and media.
“Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline, based in Marxism, that teaches racism pervades every corner of American society, and therefore, that American institutions must be torn down and remade so that all of society’s benefits can be equitably redistributed.”
What CRT does is boil everything down to race. What it does not do is take into consideration a person’s character. What it does is reject the very foundations of liberty, freedom, and the Judeo-Christian values upon which America was built. What it does not do is leave any room for logical, scientific, or critical thinking. What it does is find racism everywhere, even if it has to interpret peoples’ motives to do so. What it does not do is take into consideration the whole of a person, including their behaviors, values, and individuality — YOU ARE THE COLOR OF YOUR SKIN, PERIOD.
In other words, if you happen to be a member of one racial group, you are a victim; of another, you’re an oppressor, whether you mean to be or not.
CRT asserts that any progress made in this and other countries towards equality is but a mirage because racism never died, it simply hid better. The fact that we have worked hard as a country to move forward from the sins of the past, to create a system of government that continues to reach toward the ideals embedded within its foundations, and to uphold those ideals for ALL Americans, is nothing more than a smokescreen behind which to hide the truth.
And what is the truth? To CRT proponents the truth is this, “White Americans can never judge blacks by the content of their character. They can only judge them, always unfavorably – consciously or unconsciously, by the color of their skin,” James Lindsay, April 2021.
The danger inherent in this way of thinking is far-reaching. It not only boils human beings down to race, a characteristic that was never in anyone’s control, to begin with, but it goes a step further by assigning specific and divisive labels to that distinction, those of victim or oppressor. That IS racism. Call CRT what you will, but don’t try to sell it as anything other than racism.
So what happens after you’ve allowed these misguided principles to seep into every aspect of government, justice, education, and business? Exactly what proponents want to see – a complete dismantling of America from the ground up. A “reimagining,” if you will. Into what? I haven’t discovered any credible answers to that question, but I can surmise, based on CRT itself, that it is not something I’d ever wish for, and certainly not something I’d wish to leave my children, grandchildren, or future generations.
But the fact remains, CRT, diversity training, systemic racism, the 1619 Project, all have one thing in common — they are designed to divide rather than unite. They are designed to destroy rather than build up. They leave no room for compromise. If you are white you are inherently racist, it’s in your DNA, in your “whiteness,” whether you acknowledge it or not. If you are not white, but another race, most notably black, then you are a victim, it’s in your DNA, so no matter what you do, you will always be oppressed.
America is NOT a racist country.
Though advocates for such destructive thinking argue that America is racist, there is actually no real science or evidence to back up their assertions. As Liam Smith, writer for The Falcon explained in his February 11, 2021 article, “Since the earliest days of American history, the governing philosophy of the United States is rooted in the protection of individual rights.”
Smith goes on to back up his premise with facts, including statistical evidence. Fact number one, The Constitution of the United States explicitly protects every citizen from unequal protection under the law. Fact number two: the top median income groups in the US by distinct race are non-white. Fact number three: success is achievable in America because hard work, innovation, and ingenuity are its backbone. Fact number four: and perhaps the most important rebuttal to the argument of systemic racism, is that the political system of the United States itself protects minority rights. As Smith explains, “The Bill of Rights was explicitly written to protect the minority from the majority.”
In short, though you may decry that America is racist at the top of your lungs, if there’s no evidence to back it up, the argument is weak and always will be.
Further, if you boil everything, including every political issue, down to racist vs. antiracist, and every individual down to victim or oppressor, then you remove from public discourse the opportunity for open dialogue and any chance for unity.
Imagine if our Founding Fathers had been so closed-minded? Considering the task they undertook, and the sacrifices they had to make to arrive at that moment in history, had they been unwilling to consider the greater good along with the potential our fledgling country had to become something better than anything the world had ever known, I, for one am ever grateful their minds remained open.
Which leads me right back to the question, Why?
Why embark on this road in the first place? And why continue down it regardless of the consequences? What possible motive could there be for perpetuating these fallacies, for encouraging these unsubstantiated narratives, especially in our classrooms?
Power. Greed. Control. Entitlement. This is not a positive list. It never has been. With goals such as these, logic, reason, laws, justice, even our Constitution, get in the way. With goals such as these, in order to progress, you must first destroy. And as history has repeatedly shown us, progress through destruction is not progress at all. It’s simply destruction; with few benefitting at the expense of the many.
That’s not America. It never has been. And it’s certainly not what we should be teaching our children America is.
We are now reaching critical mass, and regardless of the consequences speaking out may engender, the fact remains, this premeditated and blatant indoctrination of our children has got to stop. If America is to survive as a free country, as the republic it was established to be; if our God-given rights are to be protected, if liberty is to prevail, then it has got to stop. Now.
“Many Republican lawmakers and parent advocates describe CRT as racially divisive, teaching children to judge differences in skin color above the content of character. They say adding curriculum rooted in CRT also teaches children to search for racism in all aspects of life over teaching civics and history education.”
At the grassroots level, at local school board meetings, at the state level, and at the national level, we have to fight back. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s not a them or us issue. And it’s certainly not a black or white issue.
This is a fight for the very fabric of our Nation. For what we will and will not tolerate.
In the past few years, we have been forced to tolerate many things we would not have chosen; things no morally responsible, ethical, humane person would have chosen. But tolerance has got to take a back seat when it comes to the rights of our children and our responsibility as their parents, teachers, and society as a whole to protect them from harm.
“Not only is government-sponsored CRT poisonous, pernicious, and demeaning to all Americans, it is also illegal in many ways. The United States Constitution guarantees the equal protection of the laws. This foundational principle protects all individuals against discrimination or harassment based on race by the government. And so, it is no surprise that a theory that rejects “colorblindness” and “neutral principles of constitutional law” would also run afoul of the foundational principle of equality under the law. Public school teachers who treat students differently because of their race undoubtedly violate the guarantee of equal protection.
Moreover, the Constitution protects a “freedom of conscience,” meaning that government schools cannot force students to adopt a certain point of view, such as those core propositions of CRT about white supremacy, white privilege, or systemic racism. Relatedly, the Constitution prohibits “compelled speech,” meaning that teachers cannot force a student to speak a certain message, such as a confession that “I am a racist.”
Some states, including, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Arizona are beginning to push back against CRT through legislation banning its inclusion in public school curriculum.
Likewise, parent advocates are also beginning to push back. FightForSChools.com is one such grass-roots effort. A non-partisan political action committee whose focus centers on “electing common-sense candidates that commit to policies that support equal opportunity, tolerance, meritocracy, and achievement.” Through petitions, school board recall efforts, and proposed legislation, FightForSchools is doing just that, fighting to take back America’s schools.
If American values are to prevail, it is vital that we stand up for those values. Our government institutions and elected officials work for us, not the other way around. And just because something is repeated again and again via social and mainstream media, by politicians, Hollywood, and big business does not mean it’s true.
It’s time to call out these divisive ideologies for what they really are and to stand against them, regardless of the personal attacks, ostracism, public branding that will undoubtedly occur. Those may be the weapons of choice of the proponents of these ideologies and their supporters, but that doesn’t mean we have to fear them. Not when the future of our country, the rights of every American, and the protection of our children and their future are at stake.
As has often been quoted and more often seen throughout history, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” (Edmund Burk, 1729-1797)
Let’s not be that generation. The one that cedes control, the one that allows evil to prevail, by doing nothing.
Why do I have to learn history? What’s it got to do with me?
As an American History teacher, I was often asked these questions by my students. They got bored digging around in the past and more often than not, failed to make the vital connections between history and the present.
I knew I had to change that or lose them.
Teaching history in the millennial generation was a challenge to say the least. These kids were used to technology and fast-paced entertainment. They were used to answers at their fingertips.
They lived on social media and unless they had a family member or members serving in the military, their only experience with war and conflict were those presented on their iPad screens or engaged in on their X-Boxes and PlayStations.
Teaching them to value American History was a challenge.
This country is the greatest political story ever told. We are uniquely blessed and we have taken unique advantage of those blessings. And although it’s the greatest political story ever told, our children have not been told that story.
– Dr. William Bennett
Undeterred, rather than beating them over the head with history, I decided to use the tools and technology they understood to my advantage, and to theirs. After all, it wasn’t the memorization of names and dates they needed, it was understanding. And what better way to help them understand history than by living it?
From American colonization to the modern age, I set about doing just that. And along the way, I realized there were other important skills, like critical thinking, reading comprehension, debate, and writing they would learn along the way.
As a teacher, my first responsibility was to my students and to their parents who had entrusted them to me. My podium was not a pulpit from which to preach my ideals, force my interpretations down their throats, or advance any predetermined narrative or agenda. It was a platform from which to engage in research and debate, in learning to distinguish fact from opinion, in presenting all sides of an argument, and most importantly, in allowing my students to form their own opinions.
I knew the only way they would come to understand history was by taking ownership of their learning of it. And the only way they would do that, was by making the past relevant to them in the present.
My students became archeologists, explorers, settlers, revolutionaries, founding fathers, framers, activists, and more.
By assuming the role of delegates, they debated at the Constitutional Convention, put forth their arguments for or against ratification, and engaged in compromise for the greater good.
Through diaries and first-person narratives, they traveled the agonizing journey from Africa on a slave ship to a foreign land where they were considered property and nothing more.
Through diaries, letters, and historical documents, they assumed the role of drummers, infantrymen, soldiers, and nurses marching alongside the Union and Confederate armies. Along the way, they encountered both victory and defeat. They witnessed President Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address, how the Emancipation Proclamation turned the tide, and the ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Through documentaries, on-line archives, virtual tours, first-hand accounts, and classroom re-enactments, they became part of some of the most significant events shaping our country. Some of the events we studied, listed below, are often merely footnotes in our history books, while others take center stage. To me, it was all significant and worth exploring.
October 19, 1781, when General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown marking the end of the Revolutionary War and the birth of a new nation. “I bore much for the sake of peace and the public good. My conscience tells me I acted rightly in these transactions, and should they ever come to the knowledge of the world I trust I shall stand acquitted by it.” – General George Washington,Letter to General Nathaniel Greene, October, 1781
December 2, 1823, when President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, forever closing the North American continent to European colonization. “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are not to be considered subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”– President James Monroe, December 1823
January 24, 1848, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill marking the beginning of the Gold Rush, American westward expansion, and the significance of these events to America. “Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success and thousands will leave their bones here. Others will lose their health, contract diseases that they will carry to their graves with them. Some will have to beg their way home, and probably one half that come here will never make enough to carry them back. But this does not alter the fact about the gold being plenty here, but shows what a poor frail being man is, how liable to disappointments, disease and death.” – S. Shufelt, in a letter to his cousin in 1850, from California.
September 2, 1862, when the deadliest one-day battle in American history was fought at Sharpsburg, Maryland, and how the outcome of the Battle of Antietam turned the tide of the Civil War. “In the time that I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”– Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, USA, Commander, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, September, 1862
March 30, 1867, when one of the largest land purchases was finalized and the United States, acquired Alaska from Russia for approximately two-cents an acre (roughly 32-cents today). “Tomorrow, if you like, I will come to the department, and we can enter upon the treaty.” [Senator Charles] Seward replied, “Why wait until tomorrow, Mr. ]Edouard de] Stoeckl? Let us make the treaty tonight.”– Assistant Secretary of State, Frederick Seward, the Senator’s son, later recalling the conversation of March 29, 1867.
December 17, 1902, when Orville and Wilber Wright successfully took their first flight at Kitty Hawke, North Carolina. “After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (corrected) 27 miles according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks.”– from the diary of Orville Wright, December 17, 1902
July 16, 1945, when The Trinity Test successfully detonated the first atomic bomb, establishing the United States as the most powerful nation on earth and ushering in the atomic age. A month later, two bombs were dropped on Japan ending World War II, but revealing the true horrors of nuclear war to the world. “In that brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly and startlingly to the fullest fruition. Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarce breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast.” – General Leslie R. Groves, Head of the Manhattan Project, July, 1945
They became part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, marching alongside the thousands upon thousands of activists seeking to break through the barriers and extend civil, voting, and human rights to all. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Morehouse College Speech, 1948
They were there when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down. “Everything was out of control. Police on horses watched. There was nothing they could do. The crowd had swollen. People were blowing long alpine horns which made a huge noise. There were fireworks, kites, flags and flags and flags, dogs, children. The wall was finally breaking. The cranes lifted slabs aside. East and West German police had traded caps. To get a better view, hundreds of people were climbing onto a shop on the West German side. We scampered up a nine foot wall. People helped each other; some lifted, others pulled. All along the building, people poured up the wall. At the Berlin Wall itself, which is 3 meters high, people had climbed up and were sitting astride. The final slab was moved away. A stream of East Germans began to pour through. People applauded and slapped their backs. A woman handed me a giant bottle of wine, which I opened and she and I began to pour cups of wine and hand them to the East Germans.” – Andreas Ramos, from his written personal account of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, November, 1989
Their seats weren’t at the end of a history book or in front of the screen of some long-forgotten projection. No, thanks to technology and the primary resources it offered, they had no seats at all. Instead, they were moving, seeking, learning, and growing right in the middle of it all.
And still I went further. Reaching out to other educators, individuals within my community with historical ties to some of these events, and even to my own husband who researched and collected Florida pre-historic artifacts, I invited them to my classroom. And with them they brought tangible pieces of history my students could feel and touch and learn from.
Like the pieces of a Spanish moss-woven Confederate soldier’s blanket, Civil War-era ammunition, and a soldier’s pipe. The hand-written diaries and letters of a local businessman’s ancestor who fought in the Civil War. The first-person videotaped interviews of World War II veterans living in our area. And my husband brought them pieces of his collection of ancient pottery, projectiles, tools, and fossils. I think every classes favorite was the mammoth molar (tooth) as big as some of their heads. That sure put the size of the beast in perspective for them!
And perspective was, after all the point.
For me, teaching history was never about names and dates. It was always colorful and alive, relevant and real. That’s how I‘d been lucky enough to learn and receive it, and that’s how I wanted my students to experience it.
I viewed being a teacher as my vocation and I was passionate about fulfilling my responsibility as a mentor and a guide. My goal was to give my students tools they could use throughout their lives, to encourage them on their journey, but to ultimately step back and allow them to take the helm.
And Civics was no exception. Even though it is no longer taught as a subject in our schools, I believe it to be one of the most vital pieces of education, and for me, an essential part of teaching American History.
To that end, my school participated in mock elections, hosted local and state leaders in our classrooms, participated in letter-writing campaigns to our Congressmen and women, and perhaps more importantly participated in community service activities like food drives and raising money for victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters across the globe.
One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.
Through the years I learned that just as history cannot afford to be viewed as a static entity, neither can the teaching of it.
That’s why to me, this current trend of using history as a means to a political end-game; of actively seeking its destruction through tendentious and divisive narratives determined to rewrite it, are lethal to all that unites us and makes us American.
The evidence of that is being seen now more than ever. Just turn on the television —from dangerous and destructive riots that encourage division and hatred, to anti-American rhetoric spray-painted across our cities, toppled monuments and burning flags, — and most destructively of all, this sweeping narrative that demands we view everything through the lens of racism; this lack of patriotism is destroying more than our culture, it’s threatening our way of life and our very existence.
The only weapon we really have against this tide is knowledge and our willingness to continually defend our right to seek it, especially in this age of intentional misinformation, misdirection, and rhetoric presented as fact.
When it comes to the history of our country this is most vital. As Dr. Bennett so eloquently stated, “If they [students] do not know what they came from, what their legacy is, what their inheritance is, how will they support or defend it?”
Emma’s story isn’t a unique one, in that sadly, in 2020 alone, the number of new cancer cases in the United States was estimated at 1.8 million, with approximately 606,000 of those ending in death, cancer.org.
However, her story is unique, in that, when it happens to a family member, a friend, yourself, the statistics cease to matter. In that moment the reality of it becomes real in a way it never could before. It’s no longer separate, but very personal, very intimate, and very frightening.
Like many families, cancer has impacted ours many times over. Cancer took my husband’s father in 1999, my father in 2010. We lost our niece to breast cancer at the age of 33, in 2013. A few years later, in 2015, we lost my husband’s sister to brain cancer. She was only 56.
Yet, even the pain and devastation of those losses could not prepare us for the blow that four little words would deliver: Your daughter has cancer.
This is Emma’s story.
Five years ago, at the age of 17, after almost a year of tests and continued deteriorating health, Emma was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma. The diagnosis was both a blessing, we finally knew what was wrong, and a curse, how could this be happening to her?
Fear and faith overwhelmed us. But in the end, it was Emma, herself who would fight this battle in mind, in body, in spirit. We could comfort, support, care for, and pray, but it would be Emma doing the fighting. And with faith and hope, did she ever fight.
She spent her senior year of high school at Shands Children’s Hospital in Gainesville where she underwent intensive chemotherapy to battle this deadly disease. Her warrior spirit and faith were something to behold.
As parents, my husband and I were humbled by her strength during such devastating circumstances. Instead of complaining or feeling sorry for herself she rose up. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she turned her love and talent in music and art to gifts she shared with other patients and their families on the children’s wing.
She finished high school virtually, and played her guitar and sang as often as she could. She became known as the “Rockstar” of the pediatric floor.
June 2021 marks five years cancer free for Em. Five years cancer free in the medical community is often referred to as ‘cured’ since the likelihood of reoccurrence is very small. We’ll take that.
We know how lucky we are. We know that Emma’s story doesn’t always end for others the way it did for her. And we are so very grateful for this miracle. We praise God every day for this precious gift he has given our family.
During her illness, Emma wrote a beautiful song called, Breathe. In 2019, we traveled to LA as a family, where she worked with producers and recorded it as her first single at Paramount Recording Studios. It was a family celebration of a lifetime.
She asked her dad, also a musician, to play on the track. She asked her big sister and I to sing backup vocals. It was a beautiful and inspirational moment when it all came together. One that we will cherish for a lifetime.
Emma is almost 23 now. She’s healthy and strong. She continues her journey grateful every day for the opportunities and the life before her. She still sings. Still plays her guitar. Still writes music. She doesn’t define herself by her cancer story. Rather, she acknowledges that her story is one among millions and is deeply humbled that unlike so many others, she was given another chance to live, to love, to be.
I’ve learned to be grateful for the hard times, because without them the good times wouldn’t be as good. I’ve learned more about myself and who I am. I’ve learned that even in the toughest times, you can make great memories. And I’ve learned that the way you think can change not only your experience, but also those around you. If you’re positive, it affects others in a positive way. Mostly I’ve learned that worrying is pointless, because you’re not in control. I’ve learned to trust God in all things, no matter the outcome.
Emma Rose Fenwick
Thank you for letting me share Emma’s story.
Breathe by Emma Rose is available on all platforms if you’d like to listen. ♥️
JN Fenwick, author, In the Eye of the Storm | In the Aftermath of the Storm
A room without books is like a body without a soul.
Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, has always been one of my favorite places to visit; especially, his library. Standing in the dim room, surrounded by Jefferson’s many books, their spines lined neatly on the shelves, the smell of old parchment and the musty scent of tomes that, at one time, rested in the hands of the man himself, is inspiring to a history lover like myself.
I can almost imagine Jefferson standing there amid the shadows, searching for a particular title, running his hands over the volumes until his fingers touched upon the one he sought; smiling as he pulled it down, certain that within its pages he’d find the passage he needed to complete a letter, or a thesis, or perhaps even a document that would one day guide and inspire a country through a war for independence.
Books are indeed timeless treasures. They inspire, convey, impart, teach, and perhaps most enjoyable of all, transport us to different times, different worlds, allowing us to become something other, for a while, then who we are.
A quote I came across the other day, “I am part of everything I have read,” brought to mind just how much reading has transformed and informed my life. Honestly, though, I think, much more than me becoming a part of the books I have read, that they have become a part of me. A part that I carry with me like a treasured friend. A friend I revisit from time to time, to discover an ever-evolving world; a world changing as I have changed; growing as I have grown; and through the years moving and becoming along with me.
Since I was a young girl, books have been an integral part of my life. Growing up in a big family, I often escaped from the chaos of so many siblings and the constant blur of motion, into a book; sometimes for hours at a time. Or at least until I’d hear my mom’s call for me to come help with something or other.
I even had my favorite hiding spots, places my siblings wouldn’t think to look for me; like the big oak tree in our back yard. I was notorious for getting stuck in high places once I’d climbed up. I’d inevitably look down and then freeze, almost every time. “Get the ladder,” my brothers would call, “Jen’s stuck in the tree again!” So, climbing up as far as I’d dare to settle comfortably on the wide branches of the sturdy oak, was a clever hiding spot! I’d grab an apple or a peanut butter sandwich and settle in for the day. I loved the classics, and Judy Bloom, and To Kill a Mockingbird was a title I must have read a hundred times. I even wanted to name my first daughter, Scout!
As a grew, my horizons expanded, as did my library. My ever-increasing love of history took shape in a myriad of biographies, historical non-fiction, and then gradually historical novels. In my early twenties, I was introduced to Anne McCaffery and her dragon-filled world of Pern. I not only quickly devoured every single book in the series, I hunted eBay and old book stores until I had an early edition hard copy of each book. They were all second-hand, but I felt that added to their beauty and charm.
Eventually the magical world of Harry Potter was introduced to the world, and like so many others, I stood in line at Books-a-Million to get my hands on the next volume as soon as it was released. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series was no less compelling and deserving of the same attention and dedication! When eReaders hit the scene, I initially balked at the notion. I wanted a book in my hand; and a hardcover one at that. I loathed paperbacks! It wasn’t until my husband brought to my attention the exorbitant amount of money and the increasingly growing amount of space my book habit required, that I consented to a Kindle. I’d still rather hold an actual book, but I’m nothing if not adaptable!
As I stand in front of my own bookcases and delve into the many containers full of books stored in my spare room, I can trace the evolution of my life, from childhood to young woman; through college and graduate school; through my years as a history teacher and through my progressing physical and spiritual journeys.
My daughters’ favorite books reside there along with the many intrigue and mystery books my husband also enjoys reading. They are nestled there, along with my own hand-written journals.
Taking it all in, I can’t help but think that perhaps one day, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren read one of these books I love so much, that maybe the part of me that resides within their pages will speak to them; and that for a moment, despite the distance and time that may separate us, we will exist alongside each other, sharing a secret, speaking the same silent language. And perhaps in that moment, they will know with certainty that I lived, that I breathed; and that I once held the very same book and read the very same words. That is the magic of books, and therein lies the treasure.
As Dorian approaches, media outlets are reporting it as “an unprecedented storm in Florida,” and that Dorian “would be the strongest storm to hit Florida since 1992.”
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock
As I look around the barren landscape and notice the still clinging blue tarps, the vacant lots where homes and businesses used to stand, the stark and revealing evidence that some forgotten disaster occurred here, I have to wonder, exactly when the rest of the world decided Michael was nothing more than a blip on their radar?
For us, Category 5, Hurricane Michael changed everything. Just ten months ago we were struggling through the first days and weeks following the destruction he left behind.
Those of us who have lived in the aftermath of Michael have weathered countless storms since that day last October. Though progress is being made, the region and its people are suffering.
Now, just ten months later, the threat of another storm has brought into stark and disheartening clarity, the fact that the rest of the world has indeed forgotten.
A recent survey conducted by Rebuild 850, an initiative launched shortly after the storm to advocate on behalf of hurricane victims still trying to rebuild their lives, showed nearly half of respondents would do nothing to help people affected by the hurricane and nearly 75 percent said they would not consider donating money to help with relief efforts (FLAPOL, 26 June 2019).
For those outside the region, who mistakenly believe that all is well, the numbers don’t lie, though they are rarely, if ever reported on.
Since October 10, 2018, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and increasing uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid and insurance bureaucracies have coalesced into massive storms of their own.
Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew, tearing a path through some of the poorest parts of Florida. Insurers report nearly $7 billion in losses across nearly 150,000 claims that have been filed (The Tampa Bay Times, 26 August 2019).
In Mexico Beach, where Michael’s eye passed, virtually obliterating the tiny coastal community, the losses are staggering and rebuilding is slow.
The city’s budget depends on property taxes. But 70 percent of the storm’s 27,000 homes were damaged or completely destroyed by the storm. Before the storm about 1,1000 people lived in Mexico Beach. Now only 400 or so remain. The city doesn’t currently have a gas station or a grocery store (mypanhandle.com, 18 August 2019).
Residents throughout the entire Panhandle region continue to struggle with the after affects of Michael. The emotional trauma of living through a natural disaster of this magnitude and scope have left many in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety.
As Dorian makes his way across the Atlantic, many residents are still living in tents or ruined homes, waiting for contractors or government funds to help them rebuild. Some fear heavier rains attracting black mold, with roofs still covered by tarps that can leak, even with a typical summer’s afternoon thunderstorm. Others are wary about water damage from flooding, as state and municipalities still work to clear debris, or about weakened trees from Michael that might topple in a lesser storm (Miami Herald, 10 July 2019).
In Bay County too, progress is slow and the after effects of Michael are still readily visible. Debris and damaged buildings remain along Highway 98, the main drag, and 5,000 kids are still considered “homeless,” crashing with friends and family or living in FEMA tents and trailers. About 30 percent of the school kids never came back. More than 50 percent of the apartments still are not livable (Fox News, 31 May, 2019).
The sad truth is, that outside of the impacted areas, the rest of the country is oblivious to the continued hardships survivors of Michael face.
And nothing brings that into clarity more glaringly than listening to the media reports on Dorian. In truth, we do not wish the kind of destruction and the hardships we’ve endured since Michael on anyone. And we recognize that we are not the only region of the country to suffer from natural disasters. All we ask is please, just please don’t minimize our struggles or trivialize our survival by continuing to misreport Michael’s destruction and impact.
The forgotten coast we may be, but rest assured, not a single one of us who lived through that day, who continue to exist in the aftermath, will ever forget.
How can we? The destruction is still all around us.
Jennifer N. Fenwick, editor, contributing author, In the Eye of the Storm and the soon to be released, In the Aftermath of the Storm, coming October, 10, 2019.
When Hurricane Micheal slammed into our cities last October, he took more with him than just our trees, our businesses, our homes. He took pieces of us. Memories we’d planted long ago. The world outside has moved on. But we, we are still living in the aftermath.
Like the many cities destroyed before us by Andrew, Katrina, Florence, by fire, and flood, the rebuilding is slow. It will be years before our landscape looks anything like it did the day before the storm. So many are still suffering, homeless, frightened, weary. We’re doing our best, but there are days when even the most you can give is not enough.
And there are stories. So many stories. It has been my privilege to work with talented writers, poets, photographers, and artists in the first months following Michael to put together a book expressing what it’s been like to survive and then live in the aftermath of a Category 5 Hurricane. Entire towns were swept away in the violence. Entire communities joined together to offer aid and assistance where they could.
In the Eye of the Storm was released in January, 2019, just three months after the catastrophic storm destroyed our cities. All proceeds earned from book sales, both online and locally, have gone to the United Way of Northwest Florida’s Hurricane Michael Relief Fund. All money earned through this fund remains local to help those in need across the region. We are so very grateful to all who have supported our efforts and purchased a copy.
We are currently completing the sequel to our first publication, In the Aftermath of the Storm: Stories of Hope and Healing. Over the past ten months we have collected many beautiful stories, poetry, and images of survival and determination in the face of such daunting circumstances.
Like it’s predecessor, all money earned from sales will continue to assist local relief efforts through the UWNWFL. In the Aftermath of the Storm will be available online and again locally in October, 2019; the one year anniversary of the day that changed our lives, our cities, our region forever.
I very rarely, if ever post anything that might be construed as political in nature. I find that those thoughts and opinions are usually best kept to oneself. However, in the current climate of chaos and noise and the constant barrage of talking heads and talking over one another, I was reminded of the numerous conversations I enjoyed with my father. He instilled in me a love of history and the constant thirst for learning that has dominated much of my life.
As a teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. Of all the subjects I taught during those years, American History was by far my favorite. As a result, my position as a history teacher was one I took very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my students the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all the clutter, in order to find a truth that does exist. It takes time and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still, the impact of seeking, of reading, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and necessary if we are to become informed citizens.
One of the easiest, and most underused methods available to us all is simply this, learn to perfect the art of distinguishing fact from opinion. In doing so, you become more adept at drawing relevant conclusions, thus arming yourself with one of the most powerful weapons available, knowledge that is earned and not simply given. It’s not hard, but it makes such an important difference.
A fact is simply this, something that can be proven either true or false. I might say, “the sky is green,” but just by looking up on any given day, you can plainly see that it is not. That the sky is green, therefore, is simply my opinion. If on the other hand I say’ “I have green eyes.” You can look at me and clearly see that my eyes are, in fact, green. See? Simple. If we then apply this to our research, to how we consume the news, or any media for that matter, the bigger picture becomes clearer. Or to put it more succinctly, the truth beneath the noise.
Try this, the next time you read a news article, take two different color highlighters and highlight all the opinions in one color and all the facts in the other. Then rewrite the story using only the facts.
I used to do this with my students regularly. It was amazing how much obsolete filler there was being reported and consumed as fact in our everyday news, at all levels.
Now, armed with the facts, you are in a much better position to determine what is indeed valid and to then form your own opinions about the subject rather than allowing others to do it for you. This in turn, also puts you in a much better position to develop educated opinions, something vastly different and much more powerful than the noise we are constantly subjected to.
Taking it a step further, you can apply this process to not only consumption of the news and media, but also to consumption of non-fiction, history, any offering that is presented as factually based. Again, it’s the delving into the subject, of questioning its validity and embarking on the quest that is important here.
In my own quest for historical knowledge, I have found this to be true. There’s a wealth of beauty and sustaining principles upon which our country is founded. Is it perfect? No. But I firmly believe it strives to be. I’m not talking about politics here, I’m speaking of the rich and meaningful history of our country. The good and the bad. The foundations upon which our Constitution was founded and the amendments that have been added since the Bill of Rights. The foundations that have guided us through decades of growth and progress, through wars and discord, through changing centuries, and a changing world. These are not obsolete, but very much relevant even to this day.
Once you open yourself up to studying and truly learning our history in this manner, I can assure you from personal experience, your thirst for knowledge will continue to increase, while your acceptance of the status quo will constantly diminish. More than just a right, I think it is a responsibility that we, as Americans, as citizens, as voters, are called to do.
So I leave you with one of my favorite Leonardo da Vinci quotes, “It had long come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
Strive to be a person of accomplishment in your quest for knowledge as much as you are in other areas of your life. You live in a country that values and protects your right to do so. Embrace it and even more, seek it, for it is in this we all prevail from generation to generation.
Jennifer N. Fenwick, former American History teacher and author | In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle and Four Weeks: A Journey from Darkness
I love the sound of rain. However, the sound of rain on a tin or metal roof is something else altogether. It brings to mind childhood afternoons with my Nana.
My Nana, Mary Murphy Chaknis, was born in 1911 in County Cork, Ireland. Her family was poor, and by the time Nana had reached her early teens, her mother and father decided to send she and her sister, Lily to America to live with relatives, and hopefully to have a better life. Nana was only 16.
She and Lily traveled on an ocean liner and passed through Ellis Island in the latter part of the 1920’s. Her first job was in a hospital kitchen, preparing meals and helping with the laundry. It was a much different world than the one she had grown up in, and far away from home.
Early on, Nana realized that her deep faith and the strength she received from God would be the cornerstones that would sustain her throughout her life. Nana would never again visit her homeland. Instead, she would live a long and beautiful life in America, meeting and marrying my grandfather, Pete Chaknis, an immigrant from Greece, and raising six children, first in New York, and then in Florida when the family transferred here in the 1940’s. My grandfather was a chef and he moved the family to Panama City when the opportunity to run his own café presented itself. The house my mother and her three brothers and two sisters were raised in would eventually be purchased by my parents after Grandpa passed away in the early 1960’s. Nana would move across the street and I would spend many hours of my childhood in her company.
Nana taught me how to
crochet. She patiently helped me create, first small granny squares and then
later on, blankets and afghans. She taught me how to bake her famous carrot
cake and cheesecake. I followed her around the kitchen watching as she prepared
her delicious fig preserves from the tree in her backyard. She’d send me out
with a basket to collect the figs when they were ready for picking. Spending
the night with her was a special treat because in the morning she’d serve the
best, fluffiest, lightest buttermilk pancakes in the world!
But rainy afternoons were my favorite. It was on those days that Nana would pull out her button box. To me it was much more than a box filled with buttons. To me it was a treasure chest. Nana saved buttons from just about every garment that lost one or that was past mending.
The box contained treasures from tiny pearl buttons to big ornate ones from suits and jackets. The were not the sort of buttons you’d ever find in a store. No, they were precious, and unique, and every bit the little gems they appeared to be. They had been saved over the years from the very garments Nana wore; from my grandfather’s worn clothing; from my mom’s and her sibling’s hand-me-downs. It was like sifting through history.
Nana could recall in vivid detail the garments from which they came and the occasions on which they were worn. It was like peeking through the looking glass into the past and seeing her as a young girl, crossing an ocean to begin a new life; a young wife and mother, caring for her family; a widow, who lost my grandfather when she was only in her mid-forties; to becoming Nana, the women I admired and whose warm hugs were the best in the world; whose Irish twinkle never left her eyes; and whose words of wisdom I still carry with me to this day.
When Nana passed in 2004, at the age of 93, she left me the button box and all of her yarn and crochet tools. Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, when the drops are pattering softly on the metal of our roof, I take out the button box and slowly sift through the buttons, thinking of Nana and the sound of her voice as she reminisced about each one.
I’d hold up one of the little treasures, asking, “What about this one, Nana? Where’d it come from?”
“Oh, that one, Jenny-Pooh,” she’d say using the nickname she’d lovingly given me, “That one was from the dress I wore on the train when we moved here from New York. I was pregnant with your Uncle George. You mom was just five…”
The story would continue, and I’d listen intently every time. Because even then I knew that one day, my own children, her great-grandchildren, would ask me the same questions. And I wanted to be able to give them these same pieces of family history that Nana was giving me; with just as much joy and just as much love. Especially on the rainy afternoons, when I knew I’d feel her presence next to me, her warmth moving through me, and perhaps most meaningfully of all, her story, living on as I shared it with the next generation.
Only four recorded Atlantic storms have maintained category five strength as they barreled inland. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, with its maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, was the most intense to ever make landfall. It destroyed nearly all structures in the upper Florida Keys as it came ashore on the evening of September 3, 1935.
Hurricane Camille is the second-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the United States. Coming ashore just before midnight on August 17, 1969 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, Camille tore a path of total and utter destruction through the region, killing over 140 people with its extremely high storm surge and massive flooding. It was decades before the region fully recovered from the devastation.
Hurricane Andrew made landfall around Ellicott Key, Florida on August 24, 1992 with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, making it the third strongest category five storm on record to hit the U.S. Andrew produced devastating damage across southern sections of Miami and nearly completely wiped Homestead, FL off the map. The damage total in Florida alone after Andrew was over $26 billion.
The most recent category 5 hurricane to devastate the Gulf Coast was Hurricane Michael, who made landfall in the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018 along the Panhandle of Florida. With maximum sustained winds of 161 mph, Michael’s eye came ashore near the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, FL, nearly eradicating its existence from the landscape. With its minimum central pressure of 27.13 inches, Michael also holds the distinction of being the third-most intense U. S. storm ever (behind Katrina, 2005, and Andrew, 1992). Hurricane Michael caused catastrophic damage from winds and storm surge in the Panama City, Mexico Beach, and Cape San Blas areas. Michael was directly responsible for at least 79 deaths, including 59 in the U.S. and 15 in Central America and over $53 billion in damage, including $5 billion in property damage in Florida alone and almost $4 billion to Florida’s forestry and farming communities.
An Eerie Silence
In the early afternoon hours of
October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida Panhandle
altering our lives in ways we could never have imagined or prepared for. When
we emerged from the shelters we had hurriedly taken, we were greeted with an eerie
silence that was so total in its completeness that we were left with nothing but
a devastating shock that shook us to our very core.
Over the course of the next few
days, the stories began to emerge. Stories that broke our hearts while at the
same time, inspiring and strengthening our resolve and determination to
overcome the chaos all around us.
There were so many stories.
Like the emergency responder who
dropped everything immediately after the winds died down, leaving his home to
travel to the very center of the destruction in Mexico Beach only to return to
his home days later to find that everything of value he’d left behind had been
taken by looters.
The story of the young couple who
sheltered in a three-story bank building near their townhome, only to be forced
into a stairwell as the windows blew out all around them. Their saving grace was
the dog leash they’d secured around the stairwell door to protect their pets. As
the intense fury of Michael’s winds swept through the building, that leash kept
the doors from blowing open, sparing their lives as well.
The story of the father and son who exchanged “I love you’s” during the height of the storm, fearing death was imminent as trees fell on their home and they wrestled valiantly to keep the doors closed against the wind while Mom used every pot and bucket available to keep the rain from flooding the interior. Or the story of the new parents forced to sleep in their car with their newborn infant after their home was totally destroyed and they had nowhere else to go. As Tony Simmons, a writer for the News Herald wrote a few days later, “We all became storytellers that day.”
A Mexico Beach resident, Scott Boutell, was close to tears as he spoke to a reporter in front of his wrecked house a few days after the storm: “Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything. There’s nothing left here anymore,” he said.
As the days and weeks began to
blur and muddy, we were stripped to the very basics of survival. No power,
phones, or internet meant no communication with the world outside. And no way
for family members outside the Panhandle to know for certain if their loved
ones were still among the living. No grocery stores, gas stations or drinkable water,
meant we had to rely on the kindness of strangers and volunteers for our basic
needs. Entire neighborhoods banded together to pool available resources and in
some cases, to provide shelter for those who lost everything.
The arduous task of digging ourselves out of the destruction, literally, began as soon as equipment could be obtained. Rescue teams went door-to-door, combing through wreckage to check for survivors, helping to dig out those trapped, or to remove the deceased who had not been so lucky. Large red X’s began to appear on doors across the region, a way of marking that the dwelling had been checked and cleared. It was like moving through the set of one of those apocalyptic movies, only the set was real, and we were the bedraggled cast of shell-shocked, weary survivors.
And the eerie quiet remained pervasive.
In the immediate aftermath, 4,000 National Guard were deployed to assist the nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officials already on the ground in the area. Crews with dogs searched door-to-door in Mexico Beach, pushing aside debris to get inside badly damage structures.
A strictly enforced dawn to dusk
curfew was put in place to protect citizens, but also to deter looters from
taking advantage of the plight of others.
Within a day, over 6,000 linemen
descended on the area to get the decimated power-grid back on line as quickly
as possible. It wouldn’t be quick. It would take over a month to restore the
nearly one million homes and businesses affected throughout the region.
Work crews removed 31 million cubic yards of debris in Florida left by Hurricane Michael, compared to 3 million for Hurricane Irma, a much broader storm that affected the entire peninsula in 2017, according to T.J. Dargan, deputy federal coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Michael response and recovery effort, The Washington Post.
However, the aftermath still continues unabated. Our homeless numbers are on the rise as FEMA assistance begins to run out and more and more people are forced onto the streets. Livable properties are scarce, and supply and demand has caused rent prices to skyrocket, leaving many without any hope of shelter in the near future. Bay County Schools reports some 4,800 students, about 1 in 6, are living in temporary homes, a classification federal officials consider as homeless.
Down a country road in Bay County, Sam Summers, a heavy-equipment operator, and his wife, Sherry Skinner-Summers, who works with the sheriff’s department, have opened their five-acre lot to people whose houses and trailers were destroyed in the storm. The Summers and their donors provide tents to families and individuals who cannot find or afford hotel rooms or apartments and pass a background check.
Many of the lingering effects of
the storm are more intangible. We are visibly fatigued, with stress, anxiety,
and depression affecting us more and more. The constant and ever-present
reminders of the storm are a blow to our psyche and a punch to the gut every
During all this time, while we have
been focused on survival, recovery, and healing, doing all we can to stand on
our own, we never anticipated that
some of our greatest frustrations and heartache would come at the hands of those
we believed we could rely on most to assist us.
If [Federal] funding isn’t passed soon, repair work on Tyndall Air Force Base, which is estimated to make up a third of Bay County’s economy, will grind to a halt on May 1, hurting both the local area and military readiness. Also in jeopardy are repairs to the local VA medical facilities, the U.S Coast Guard facility repairs and federal dollars for the schools, according to Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s office.
That the world quickly moved on and donations for Hurricane Michael relief have fallen well-short of those for previous storms and disasters hurt, yes, but we could understand that. We knew from the beginning that we were not the only natural disaster affecting the country. Other regions, most notably the victims of the wildfires that burned though California, are also in need of assistance.
No. What has sickened us most as
the weeks turn into months, is the partisan politics in Washington that have
hampered the passage of the relief bill we so desperately need. As lawmakers continue to
spar over the details of the supplemental disaster funding bill, we, and all
the other disaster affected regions in the country continue to suffer. We are
doing our best, but it’s a day-to-day struggle. In truth, we are still living
in a war zone.
“If this hurricane had gone through Central Florida, South Florida, the dollars would have been there by now,” said state Agricultural Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried. “People are out there struggling every day — people whose entire life savings, entire college fund, is basically lying on the ground.”
There are still trees resting on structures. There
are still blue tarps covering damaged roofs. There are still pieces of plywood
covering windows. There are still piles of rubble in parking lots and in
neighborhoods where structures once stood. People are still living in tents. Others
have lost all hope and are leaving the area for good.
Every day you hear stories of shady contractors
taking advantage of desperate, weary people. Of battles with insurance
companies leaving victims with scant resources to make much-needed repairs to
homes and businesses. You wonder what it’s like to live in the aftermath of a
category 5 hurricane?
It’s hell. And until Washington puts aside their
partisan bickering and passes the aide package so desperately needed, the flames
just continue to rise.
Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.
I left teaching in
2008. As the years pass, I realize that I left a bit of myself there too. In
the lives of all the students I taught and in all the ways they enriched my
For the past
decade I have worked in the government contracting industry as a developer of
training and educational products for the Department of Defense (DoD). Still a
form of teaching, I suppose, but not in the same way as the fifteen years I
spent in the classroom and as a coach. Those years, I admit, were the pinnacle
of my career, for nothing else I would ever do would feed my soul or fill my heart
with so much gratitude and pride.
My students are
now adults, college graduates, husbands and wives, parents, contributing in
their own ways, to the world around them. I keep in touch with many of them,
thanks to the ease of social media, and I’ve even worked with a few of them at
times. They still call me, “Ms. Fenwick, or Fenny,” even though I tell them
they can call me “Jennifer,” now that they are grown. They have a hard time
with that, as I suppose no matter how old they get, I’ll always be their
teacher. A title I wear with extreme pride. As much pride as I feel every time
I see their successes, celebrate another milestone in their lives, or witness
the moments in which they truly blossom.
Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier.
For a year or two,
I was witness to their growth and learning every day, then I had to let them go
– on to the next
chapter of their lives. But I never stopped holding them in my heart, and more
than that, I never stopped being poignantly humbled and eternally grateful for
all the lessons they taught me.
For the short time I had them, I felt a deep sense of responsibility for helping to shape their attitudes and perceptions toward knowledge and learning, and not simply to just teach them American History. “Learning,” I’d explain to them, “is a lifelong endeavor. It’s not something that has a finite end, but instead, it’s something that continually shapes our lives and ultimately our growth.” And truly, isn’t that the real goal of education, to continually grow and evolve, as we gain knowledge through experience, as well as through education?
Understanding that middle school students wouldn’t understand this perspective from my words only, I set about teaching them through example. My goal? To instill in them a lifelong desire for knowledge; a deep and intrinsic desire to continually ask questions and to seek, of their own volition, the answers. In my own experience, and through the guidance of my parents and some of my own teachers, I was shown the value of the quest and ultimately the lasting effect of earning knowledge.
a history teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to
hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. I took that
position very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my
kids the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all
the clutter and noise, in order to find a truth that does exist. It takes time
and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still,
the impact of seeking, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and
necessary if we are to become informed citizens.
One of the easiest, and most underused methods available to us all is simply this, learn to perfect the art of distinguishing fact from opinion. In doing so, you become more adept at drawing relevant conclusions, thus arming yourself with one of the most powerful weapons available, knowledge that is earned and not simply given. It’s not hard, but it makes such an important difference.
When we were
embarking on the history of the U.S. Constitution, I wondered, what better way
for them to understand the process, the debate, the compromises that went into
shaping this document, then to recreate the Constitutional Convention in my
classroom? To assign each of them to the role of one of the delegates? To give
them the opportunity to step into the past and assume the perspectives, if they
could, of the very men who met in the Summer of 1787 to draft the document? It
wasn’t the names and the dates, after all, that were important, but rather the
lessons learned and the words that were drafted, that still held relevance
today, that were at the heart of the lesson.
From the activity,
many questions arose, many debates ensued, and many new perspectives were gained.
I think one of the most important lessons my students learned, something I
myself had learned when I was their age, was that history should not be judged
by the principles of the present, but rather we should acknowledge the
evolution of those thought processes and the changing mindset of ensuing
generations. How else are we to learn from the past? How else will we prevent
the repetition of events that have already transpired, that have already been
sacrificed for, that have already left their indelible marks?
a wealth of beauty and sustaining principles upon which our country is founded.
Is it perfect? No. But I firmly believe it strives to be. I’m not talking about
politics here, I’m speaking of the rich and meaningful history of our country.
The good and the bad. The foundations upon which our Constitution was founded
and the amendments that have been added since the Bill of Rights. The
foundations that have guided us through centuries of growth and progress,
through wars and discord, through changing centuries and a changing world.
These are not obsolete, but very much relevant even to this day.
Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.
When studying the
U. S. Civil War, my classroom became a replica of the country during that
period of our history. My students were divided into the Union and the
Confederacy. They were tasked with researching each battle, each conflict, each
principle, from the perspective of the side they were on. It was difficult at
times. There were many issues that were difficult for them to wrap their minds
around, many questions that we needed to address together. But in the end, by
the time we reached the surrender at Appomattox, they shone with a sense of
pride, and a deeper understanding of one of the most poignant and agonizing periods
of American History.
Above all, I hoped
that they walked away with a deeper understanding of the power of actively pursuing knowledge, rather than simply
receiving it; of being willing to ask the questions, of doing the research, and
seeking the answers on their own, and then, and only then, when armed with the
information and the facts, in forming their own, individual opinions. Their
successes became my reward. Their pride in themselves for a job well-done, my
The teacher’s task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way.
Teaching is in fact a calling. There are no grandiose salaries. The work itself can be at times, frustrating and it often goes unappreciated. Our society doesn’t go out of its way to value teachers or to stress the importance of their role in the lives of future generations. Teachers go into this profession, knowing and understanding that. But thankfully, still go into it nonetheless.
I can only hope
and pray that the call to teaching continues to beckon future generations. That
individuals who understand the value and necessity of embarking on this career,
aren’t dissuaded by the negative aspects, but look at it instead as an
opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of so many.
You may be
wondering at this point, if I feel so strongly about this profession, why I
left? It wasn’t an easy decision, nor was it one I took lightly. An opportunity
that enabled me to provide more financial support for my family, better
benefits, and a better retirement package presented itself. It was as hard and as
simple as that.
Though my new
position has many perks, it hasn’t, nor will it ever, replace the things I gave
up when I left teaching. I will always be an educator at heart. And though I’ve
been out of the profession for a decade, I continue to support my fellow
educators and the individuals and programs that give them the support and the
tools they need to continue to do their jobs effectively and with passion.
The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see (Alexandra K. Trenfor),” while, “A good student is one who will teach you something (Hanifa Jackson-Adderly).
That’s the beauty of being a teacher. It’s a two-way path. The path we chose, to become teachers and the preparation we undergo to ensure we are effective ones; and the path our students walk; eager to learn, often frustrated and combative, wanting desperately to reach that capstone year so they can graduate and enter the “real world” finally.
encouraged my students to strive to become individuals of accomplishment in their
quest for knowledge as much as they were in the other areas of their lives. I
reminded them daily that they lived in a country that values and protects their
right to do so. That they should, in fact, embrace this gift and even more, actively
seek knowledge, for it is this that will ultimately enable us to prevail and to
grow from generation to generation.
Afterall, The best and most lasting gift
we can give our students, is the ability to critically
think and the desire and passion to pursue knowledge and learning throughout
It must be remembered that the purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts – it is to teach them to think, if that is possible, and to always think for themselves.
My students used to tell me I was a nerd. I’d laugh and thank them, taking it as a compliment. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that I loved books, and words, and writing and research, and well, learning in general.
Since I was a young girl. I got excited at the thought of finding a new author to follow, eager to read their words and to become a part of the fabric of their story. I got downright giddy when I’d come across a new word. I’d excitedly add it to my “Word Journal” – yes, I kept a journal of new words I came across. I’d write them down and then look them up and use them in conversation and in my writing. I’d been doing it since I was very young. When I shared this with my students, hoping to encourage them to do the same, they’d look at me as if I’d just spontaneously sprouted wings and a tail right in front of them! “What?” I’d ask them.
“Ms. Fenwick,” they’d explain, exasperatedly, “You can Google anything;” like I was from a different planet, rather than a different era. “In my day, Google wasn’t even a word in the English language,” I’d mutter under my breath, further proving the vastness of the cavern between us.
What was the fun of “Googling” everything? It wasn’t
the same as writing a word down and then looking it up in an actual dictionary.
The act of writing it down made it personal. And seeking out the meaning,
turning the pages of the dictionary, running your fingers across the pages
until they located the word you were searching for – it was like a treasure
hunt; and writing down the definition, well that just meant you’d taken
ownership of the knowledge. It was tangible and therefore something that would
then become part of your vernacular, part of your story.
“You can’t get that from GOOGLE!” I’d say, throwing my hands out, pleading for my students to understand the beauty of the process as I did. Nothing. Blank faces.
“Um, Ms. Fenwick,” one brave student would finally raise their hand slowly, speaking for the whole group, “Google has dictionaries too.” Of course, it did! Apparently, GOOGLE had everything. How had I managed to get through my life, let alone three college degrees, without Google!
My love of language, history, reading, of learning in general, I could attribute to my father’s influence. He grew up in a poor, rural community in Georgia. After graduating from high school, he entered the Coast Guard, where he served for four years. College wasn’t something his family could afford, so the service was the next best thing.
For my Dad though, life was his university, living, his degree. He surrounded himself with the classics. He made sure we had a beautiful set of encyclopedias and a Webster’s hardbound dictionary in our home. A library card was a well-earned privilege. I spent many hours talking with him about history, current events, even philosophy and spirituality. He was well-read, and wise, and engaging, encouraging us to think for ourselves, to never stop asking questions.
“When you cease to learn, to continually seek knowledge, no matter what your position or pedigree,” he’d explain, “You cease living.” I loved that about my Dad, his humility and his understanding of the importance of being an active seeker of knowledge, rather than a passive receiver.
I couldn’t help but wonder at times, if the advancements being made in technology and the ease in which today’s students could access information, wasn’t somehow diminishing that active pursuit of knowledge my father was talking about.
Was “Googling” for information the same as opening a book and searching for answers? Was it the same as actually going to the library and looking up book titles and then searching the shelves and finding them, checking them out?
Though a great tool that allows access to a wider world of information, should Google be the only way students seek information? Is the resulting knowledge somehow less appreciated because it is so easily gained? Or am I simply as antiquated as my students think me to be; resisting the new because I had grown up in an era when Google wasn’t an option?
I taught Language Arts and American History, so
reading, research and writing were a big and natural part of my lessons. I
found incorporating modern technological advances into my curriculum, along
with a good dose of the old-fashioned tools – like the library and actual books
– was a happy medium. I wanted my students to experience both worlds. I wanted
them to uncover the answers to their questions and to seek out knowledge on a
personal level; to understand the intrinsic value of life-long learning and to
experience the feeling of pride and accomplishment for a job well done.
I understood that Google was part of their generation, as were electronic books, video games, social media, and easy and instant access to everything on their cell phones.
In order to grow with my students, to engage meaningfully with them, and to remain relevant as an educator, I would have to embrace these things, BUT – and it was a pretty important “but” to me – I also felt a responsibility to keep the past alive as well. To give them opportunities to do things the old-fashioned way; to open actual books; to understand how to use and to experience a library, to write a research paper, to increase their vocabulary through reading, and yes, to keep a word journal – even if it was using the notes app on their phone.
Acquiring, retaining, and applying knowledge was the most important part of their education. And though they might not appreciate that in the moment, I knew there would come a time when some of them would actually be grateful. And for this life-long logophile and lover of learning, that’s the reason I became a teacher in the first place.
“Everyone here has a story of loss they struggle to describe and recovery they cannot yet comprehend.”
1. There was no way to adequately prepare.
We’d done this before, many of us, more than once; prepared for the possibility of a hurricane visiting us during the Season. We were used to Summer ushering in, not just the tourists, but the Atlantic Hurricane Season as well. Hurricane Season begins the first of June and lasts through the end of November every year.
Living in the Panhandle of Florida, we knew that during any given Season we could be at risk, so preparedness was something we took seriously. Many of us had remained through Opal (1995) and Ivan (2004) and felt confident we could safely weather Michael as well.
But there are some things you can’t prepare for. Some things that happen so quickly and change so dramatically that no amount of preparation matters. Hurricane Michael was one of those.
“I think that if people are comparing storms, what was really fascinating was that Michael was still intensifying when it was making landfall, which is similar to Hurricane Camille also intensifying as it moved inland,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, in an article that appeared in Time Magazine. “Other storms, like Hurricane Opal in 1995, actually went from a category 4 to 3, just like most storms that make landfall on the Gulf Coast tend to weaken.”
In an October 10, teleconference organized by FEMA, Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross said, “This storm intensified extremely quickly. It didn’t give anyone time to do much. And the one thing you can’t get back in a disaster is time.”
2. The destruction was catastrophic and widespread.
Michael’s path was far reaching. From the coast of the Panhandle deep into the farming and forestry communities of north Florida and Georgia, he carved massive swaths of utter destruction.
As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.
“Nothing, and I stress NOTHING, could have prepared us for what we saw,” said Jane Smith, who rode out the storm with her husband and son in their Bay County home. “I think at this point we went into shock.” Smith and her family, like many, lost everything and are now trying to recover and rebuild in this new normal.
As the days crept by, the nightmare only worsened. Residents in the affected areas struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, faced total destruction of their property.
“Just 1 in 10 of Panama City’s homes and businesses scraped by unscathed. The rest were damaged or destroyed, local officials said. The county property appraiser put the damage total in Bay County alone at $1.3 billion and counting.”
Kathryn Varns | Tampa Bay Times | 27 DEC 2018
“With nowhere to go people were resigned to living in campers, tents, or bunking with neighbors, and relying on portable toilets and boxed ready-to-eat meals provided by FEMA, the Red Cross or other volunteers,” reported The Guardian in an October 26, 2018 article by Jamiles Lartey.
Power was destroyed. Water was dangerous to use and consume. Cell and internet service was nonexistent. Cut off from the rest of the world, each day brought new struggles.
Some recovery efforts began immediately. Like the over 6,000 linemen who descended on the region within hours to restore power to the 800,000 residents left in the dark.
Like the acres and acres of felled trees, the region’s power lines and grids suffered the same fate courtesy of Micheal’s more than 155-mph sustained winds.
Search and recovery began within hours with teams of first responders, National Guard, and law enforcement from around the country deployed to the area. Safety was the number one priority in the aftermath of Michael’s intense fury.
In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through the piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town.
Even now, almost six months after Michael, Mexico Beach is in tatters. According to a WJHG/WECP story which aired on March 28, “There are only three restaurants currently open in Mexico Beach, three of its four hotels have been demolished, and the other one is still being rebuilt.”
“This landscape is changed forever. For lack of a better term, desolate,” said Al Burnett, a Mexico Beach resident, whose home was literally lost to Michael’s storm surge. “My best educated guess is that things will never be right for maybe the next three or four years … maybe never.”
The Guardian | 29 October 2018
The impact from Michael is not just limited to the coastal region of the Florida Panhandle. The widespread catastrophic damage spread well inland as Michael remained at hurricane strength into the rural and farming communities of Florida and southwest Georgia, before passing through Virginia and North Carolina, and then finally making his way back out to the Atlantic.
3. The World moved on. We could not.
Traveling anywhere in the impacted regions feels more akin to moving through the aftermath of an apocalypse than home. The constant and ever-present reminders are a blow to the psyche and a punch to the gut every single day.
“People get lost driving around because landmarks were wiped out. They spray-paint their address on a piece of plywood and lean it against the garage door. They eat dinner in a McDonald’s surrounded by construction workers chowing down on quarter-pounders” (Tampa Bay Times).
And while basic necessities have been restored, life in the region is far from normal as people struggle to make a way in this dramatically altered landscape.
Currently, some displaced families are living in a tent city in the backyard of one generous woman who decided that instead of turning her back, she would do something. People have been forced to take shelter in campers, parked in the driveways of homes without roofs, sometimes without structures at all. Others have been forced to return to their all-but-leveled apartment complexes because there is simply nowhere else to go.
As of mid December, FEMA has given out about $28 million in housing repair grants, approved about 14,000 homeowners and renters for rental assistance, and had about 600 families staying in hotels. But without properties to rent and hotels quickly filled to capacity these are short-term solutions. Once the money runs out, with still no home to return to, what becomes of those already struggling before the storm?
To make matters worse. Donations for Michael to three of the top disaster aide organizations have fallen well below the national average for similar storms, like Harvey, Florence, and Irma, who also hit the South in the past two years. “Survivors of Hurricane Michael fear that they’ve been forgotten,” (The Washington Post, 6 APRIL 2019).
4. The numbers don’t lie.
Since October 10, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid bureaucracy threaten to swirl into a massive storm of its own.
In Bay County alone, 5,500 students have had to leave their living situations because of hurricane damage (News Herald, 28 MAR 2019).
Skyrocketing rent prices have further compounded the housing crisis (My Panhandle, 22 MAR 2019).
Health officials report that signs of mental health problems and trauma are on the rise following Michael, including an increase in the number of Baker Act incidents in the school district (WJHG, 13 MAR 2019).
More than 3 million acres of Florida’s forestry industry were severely damaged by Michael and about half of the damage was catastrophic, meaning 95 percent of the trees were lost, according to the Florida Forestry Service. With large tracts of managed land in the region, the storm is expected to cost the timber industry more than $1.3 billion (News Herald, updated 1 APR 2019).
Michael barreled through Georgia at Cat 3 strength causing nearly $2.5 billion in damage, to the state’s agricultural industry. State agriculture commissioner Gary Black said the losses were “our worst dreams being realized.” Crops of all kinds—cotton, timber, and vegetables—suffered heavy damages. (Atlanta Magazine, 17 JAN 2019).
Hurricane Michael left nearly seven times the debris of Hurricane Irma, which barreled across 45 counties in 2017 (Pensacola News Journal, 8 JAN 2019).
Hurricane Michael is responsible for 35 deaths in Florida, 45 total (NBC Miami, 28 OCT 2018).
“Of all the Florida Panhandle areas affected by Michael, Bay County was hardest hit: Officials said almost three-quarters of its 68,000 households were affected. Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, who is leading a hurricane recovery initiative, estimated about 20,000 people were homeless in the weeks after the October storm.”
5. The future may be uncertain, but we remain determined.
As we navigate this strange new world, there are days when the frustration and grief become overwhelming. Days when the determination grows stronger. Days when the fatigue and stress settle deeper into our bones.
Through it all, we try to remain hopeful. The world may have moved on, the impacts of Michael may still be revealing themselves, recovery and rebuilding may be ongoing with no definitive end in sight, but there’s one thing we’re all certain of, it will be a long time, and a lot of hard work, before we are OK again.