One month ago, every community in Pittsburgh experienced a life-altering trauma. For some, the Tree of Life shooting directly touched their family. For others, the events triggered the memory of an equally horrifying experience. But much like the attacks on the World Trade Center, every one of us will remember where we were on the morning of October 27th.
I was in an elevator in the Oakland library. A woman held the door for me, and when I stepped inside, she asked if I’d heard. “I just can’t wrap my head around it yet,” she said. Throughout the day, I had the same conversation with at least a dozen other people. As someone new to Pittsburgh, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the extent of what people were feeling, until I stopped myself. Because I had already finished that same sentence.
For the better part of 2018, I taught high school in New Orleans. Before the students arrived, teaching coaches warned me that classroom management was very difficult, especially during bad weather. In a open-enrollment school, this is hardly surprising. But I didn’t understand the full scope of the problem until a rainy September afternoon. As the sky darkened, the kids became increasingly off-task, talking over one another about the forecast. They remembered the last time their neighborhood flooded, and wondered if they’d have to walk home through rain soaked streets. As if in unison, all fifteen kids pulled out their phones. Frustrated, my co-teacher ordered them to focus on their assignment. “But it’s hard to think when it rains,” explained Ira, a fifteen-year-old from New Orleans proper. It’s hard to think when it rains.
Ira, like many kids in New Orleans, has experienced at least one traumatic incident such as gun violence, racism, poverty, and unforgettable, severe weather. Only two when Hurricane Katrina hit landfall, Ira still remembers the years of recovery and subsequent natural disasters. He often wondered aloud what will happen to New Orleans if there’s another Katrina, another tornado, or another flood.
Ira was one of the last few graduating classes to remember Katrina first-hand, though many of his class mates were themselves recent climate refugees from Central American.
These traumas though are not mere memories. These foundational experiences cloud students focus, shaping their evaluation of what is ultimately important. Research shows that repeated traumas affect a children’s brain development, causing them to struggle both behaviorally and emotionally in school. Many students recovering from trauma would fight, exploding at teachers or other students over seemingly inconsequential issues like a weird look, accidental touch, or lost pencil. Others would freeze, struggling to participate in classroom activities or even socialize with their peers.
Both reactions not only disrupted kid’s schooling, but also left them isolated and unprepared for interpersonal relationships. For example, an older student named Jamal talked to faculty and staff at lunch instead of other kids. When I asked why, he explained he “didn’t have the patience.” By the end of the year, he’d been in three fights, despite a two-month long absence. In conversation, Jamal would make seemingly sudden interjections about his experiences with community violence and gun trauma. “The only thing I remember about Katrina is standing in the attic—and the water. I think maybe my mom cried,” he would describe. Despite not remembering the details, his classmate Darrius would sometimes explain how to read the death tallies spray-painted on roofs to teachers from out-of-state and talk about going to school in trailers for most of his school career.
As climate change causes storms to increase in both frequency and severity, children will necessarily experience more storm-related trauma. In fact, during the 2017-2018 school year, the pumps worked at best sporadically, causing chronic flooding throughout the city. In August alone, the city flooded three times. And the water’s impact was immediately apparent. According to our school data, up to 20% of students didn’t show up for school when it rained , which, in a subtropical climate, contributed to chronic absenteeism. Talking to parents, the kids often struggled to meet their bus when the streets flooded. Other children were asked to stay home and watch their houses for signs of flooding so parents could go to work. Two of my students dropped out of school to join unlicensed renovation crews, prominent throughout the area due to FEMA funding restrictions that incentivize cheap repairs.
New Orleans’ schools have confronted these ever-present realities of trauma by teaching students the skills to build emotional resiliency. Through their classroom time, students practiced expressing their emotions, learned mindfulness techniques, and had access to an entire team of social workers and mental health specialists. Essentially, although not always communicated directly, educators are fighting the emotional effects of climate change every day.
For me, that meant professional development that included not only watching footage from the after-math of Katrina, but also listening to kids like Ira and Darrius talk about their experiences. Moreover, it meant living and working in a place where I too experienced chronic flooding. Eventually, I too found my mind wandering to where I parked my car—to how I would get home if the neighborhood flooded.
Pittsburgh children will not experience climate change the same way as children in New Orleans, but that said, Pittsburgh has and will continue to experience the effect of climate change, including increased rates of childhood asthma and more severe weather events such as floods and landslides in communities. Communities such as Etna and Sharpsburg have already flooded this year, while Millvale has experienced at least 2 extreme storms since its own tragic floods in 2004. Walking through the town, you can’t help but wonder if the children here, like my former students, found it hard to think when it rains.
If you want to learn more about how climate-disasters have radically changed New Orleans’ education system check out the Rebirth NOLA documentary.