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.

Image by Cindy K. Sickle

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.

Cover image by Sharon Owens

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.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, author/editor, survivor

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. 

“Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived
as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.” ~ Albert Einstein

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. 

“Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.”
~ Carl Gustav Jung

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. 

“No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.” ~ L. Frank Baum

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. 

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor
and attended to with diligence.” ~ Abigail Adams

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. 

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens,
how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

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. 

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,
but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” ~ Maya Angelou
Photo Credit: John Fenwick

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.

One of my favorite sounds is that of rain falling on a tin roof.
It reminds me of childhood and afternoons spent with Nana.

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.

My grandmother traveled from Ireland as a young girl. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island greeted her upon her arrival in her new 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!

Nana’s button box was a treasure trove of history and memories.

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.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, author, In the Eye of the Storm and Four Weeks

Keep your head up Panama City. A feat that has proven much harder as the weeks since Michael have turned into months. Image by Sharon Owens

There have only been four.

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.

This destroyed bank building on 23rd Street in Panama City, FL proved to be no shelter at all for those trapped inside during the height of the storm. Image by Rebekah Nelson.

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.

The Guardian

Only the basics remained.

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.

Destruction and debris left in Mexico Beach, Florida after Hurricane Michael as emergency first responders and National Guard comb the area door-to-door for survivors. Image by Brandon Perdue/iStock.

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.

The Guardian

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.

Linemen from all over the country, 6,000 in all, traveled to the affected region to help get the over one million customers without power back on line. Image by Jennifer Fenwick.

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.

The Washington Post

A day-to-day struggle.

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 single day.

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.

Government Technology – Emergency Management

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.”

The Washington Post

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.

Sights like the one above are rampant throughout the area. Image by Jennifer Fenwick

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.

© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Panama City, FL resident and Author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle

Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.

Haim Ginott

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 soul.

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.

John Dewey

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.

Empowering my students was a daily goal. Teaching them to think for themselves and to embark on a journey where seeking knowledge was always at the forefront.

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.

As 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?

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 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.

Josef Albers

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 gift.

The teacher’s task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way.

John Warren

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.

My students are now young adults, embarking on their own lives and successfully pursuing their goals. In my heart though, they will always be the best reminders of what it truly means to teach, to inspire, and for me, to always be a lifelong learner.

I 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 their lives.

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.

Robert Hutchins

(©2019)  Jennifer N. Fenwick, former teacher and author Four Weeks and In the Eye of the Storm  

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.”
~ Albert Einstein.

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.

“Google transformed the way most of us get our information with a search engine that enables us to find citizen-created media content alongside the work of professionals.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon, American Journalist

“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.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the man who never reads lives only once.”
~ George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

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.

The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.” ~ John Locke, English Philosopher (1632-1704)

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.

“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” ~ Bill Gates

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. 


© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle