All the while, people were dying.
Meanwhile, while adults yelled at one another on television and in the halls of government, young people around the country were getting adjusted to the start of another school year. Early September is a busy, even chaotic, time of year for young people. They size up new teachers, adjust to new schools, reach out to classmates old and new, and otherwise absorb themselves in self. And why not? Such are the pleasures and indulgences of youth.
But the start of school this year was different. Conversation in the halls and cafeterias focused not so much on the expected trials of math class or the anticipated drudgery of a social studies assignment. Instead, they talked about the very same catastrophe the adults were witnessing. But the young people brought something different to the conversationperspective.
I spoke with a number of teachers and school administrators in New Jersey and New York in early September. The moral clarity of their students was astonishing, they said. The students saw those awful images from New Orleans and immediately asked a single question: How can we help?
They didn’t ask, Who is to blame?’ one teacher told me. They weren’t looking to point fingers. They didn’t care whether the president was at fault, or the governors or the mayor of New Orleans. All they cared about was the human suffering they saw, and how they might be able to alleviate it in some small way.
How’s that for perspective?
Throughout those first few days of the school year, students from around the country rallied to help the stricken citizens of the Gulf Coast, even as so much adult commentary was reserved for the politics of blame. There is, surely, an argument to be made that more could and should have been done both before and after the storm, but as the nation’s young people might say, that argument is best made after the last victim has been fed, housed and healed.
Several teachers I spoke with pointed out that many of the nation’s students have now witnessed two historic catastrophes in the space of four years. The first, of course, was the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and now Hurricane Katrina. A teacher in his early 30’s said his high school students are growing up with a far more realistic view of the world around them. I grew up in the 1980’s, the teacher said. Everything seemed good. My world was smallall I cared about was having a good time. And now I look at my students, who remember Sept. 11, and now they’ve witnessed essentially the destruction of one of the world’s most famous cities. I think they are far, far more mature than I was at their age.
It would be an exaggeration, however, to say that only young people appreciated what was truly important in the aftermath of Katrina. Adults by the thousands asked the same question the students didHow can I help?and answered it themselves by raising money, organizing supply drives and, in some cases, actually driving or flying to the stricken area to offer their assistance.
The response from communities and individuals across the country was notable for many reasons. To borrow from the book by James Martin, S.J., about Sept. 11 (Searching for God at Ground Zero), if you were looking for God in the Gulf Coast, he was not hard to find, even amid the suffering and despair. He was there in the shelters, on board the rescue helicopters, and in the schools and hotels where the displaced were taken. He was there in the form of other Americans who through some great mystery of love gave of themselves and risked their own lives and health to assist strangers. And, of course, he was there in the form of students raising money at football games, car washes and dances.
Should we be surprised to find God on the Gulf Coast? Certainly not. As Father Martin’s book reminded us, God invariably turns up in places some of us might regard as forsaken.
Those volunteerswhether they were the firefighters from New York who traveled to help the distressed of New Orleans, or the school children from coast to coast who saw suffering and tried to heal itsurely put the lie to the notion that America does not care about its poor, especially poor minorities.
Many suggested that because those left behind were poor and black, the nation stood aside and allowed the worst to happen.
In truth, the nation was outraged by those unforgettable images of fellow Americans, so many of them poor and black, in distress and in need of help.
There will be plenty of time to point fingers in the coming months and years. For now, the moment requires compassion and perspective. Luckily, we seem to have both in abundance.