It’s hard to forget the stories. While the news has been saturated with the tales, what I have found is that many people need to tell what happened that day in Paradise. This has been true for not only my students, but their parents as well. Since I was there that morning, I understand that compulsion. You’ve got to tell it to process that this really happened, and it’s not going away.
Some students began with “My house burned down,” or “We saved our pets.” I also heard things like, “We still have 3 out of 4 cats.” Other kids would pull out their phones and show me pictures of their animals or the before and the after photos of their houses. In this internet age, they could obtain them online, soon after the fire; an image for them to search for even when they haven’t been able to return to their own property. Another record of their personal story.
When one boy, Casey, showed me his “before” house pictures, I noted a large tree with branches reaching out like welcoming arms. He proceeded to point it out in the after picture; this time it stood in the background with the house in a pile of ash. What’s interesting about these photos, and I’ve seen so many, is that it’s like the houses that held the families and their lives are so flat, like a large camping fire that has been extinguished, yet they held so much life just hours before. As I marveled at that incredible tree, one that would be perfect for a boy to be perched in, Casey’s mom pulled up her phone and showed me that tree with Casey sitting and grinning when the leaves were green and the house a home that they shared standing behind him. A house that is no more.
Some of their stories were unexpected. There were confessions about the novel we were reading in English class: Beowulf books burned vs Beowulf books saved. “No worries!” I reassured them, just relieved they were alright and standing before me. We had been in the middle of that novel, one I had taught for 15 years and still loved because an imperfect hero shows courage and strength as he fights not just monsters, but his fear. Who knew that the real monster lurked just over the ridge that November day, and attacked from the canyon, whipped by the wind, spreading embers everywhere, burning inward from both sides. Who knew that we would not analyze the courage of a literary hero, but we all would be forced to push down our fears and show courage in the face of a wildfire burning out of control all around us. Beowulf had faced one firedrake; Paradise faced a thousand.
It’s been almost a month, and now we sit in our “one room schoolhouse” as I like to refer to our temporary online learning center at the mall, and the stories still need to be told. When parents and kids come in for teacher support, it’s not about grammar or math practice. We sit side by side with the kids and reminisce about what’s still standing in Paradise: Holiday Market, Starbucks, and even the Dutch Bros kiosk. We also talk about the long list of what’s gone. I listen to their words and feel glad that we can share this. I worry about those who hide in their hoods, keeping their stories tucked down, deep within. I see it the shadows of their eyes.
My middle school students are between eleven and fourteen years old, and yet they have grown up too fast. First Paradise was lost and now, innocence lost. I was fortunate to not lose my house- I live in the town of Chico 25 minutes away – but I lost that feeling that we could protect our children away from the harms of the world. Since that day, our kids have shown that they had the courage to battle any monster – they are warriors and will have more battles to wage in the days ahead. Beowulf would be proud of them.