Yesterday was the first day of classes at Southeastern Louisiana University, although classes were supposed to begin last week. The flash floods that destroyed so many homes in the region caused the shift in schedule, along with many other emergency management strategies that were put in place by the state of Louisiana. People have talked about the flood down here in the media as if it were happening to somebody else, a bunch of hicks, perhaps — not people who get much news coverage at all, unless there are reports of Klan activity in the region. It happened, though, to my colleagues and my students, not to a group in white sheets but young people and their parents, people of every background, and my heart is full as I write about their courage and commitment to what John Henry Newman famously described as “the idea of a university.” I am inspired by their undaunted optimism.
One of my colleagues came in for our meeting late last week laughing about how she had had to carry her cat in her purse when the rescue boat reached her flooded house. Another colleague told me that she was lucky — only her bedroom floor was destroyed, no other part of her house was ruined. The photo you see here was taken by another colleague right outside his house; he had to direct traffic away from near his property, as when cars sped by, they caused waves of water to enter through his front door. One of my colleagues, a guardsman, rescued his neighbors with a helicopter, and he was in a fine mood as well. Coming as I do from New York City, where complaining is actually competitive — “You think you have problems? Well, let me tell you” or “All your life, you should have such problems as this man” — I was struck by the stoicism of my new colleagues at Southeastern in the face of such tragedy. They told me over and over again that it wasn’t as bad a problem as Katrina — but truly, if only 20,000 homes were destroyed, compared to the over 800,000 homes destroyed by that disaster, can one call the floods of last week a minor episode?
The English department faculty meeting I attended to prepare for this week was unlike any other I have ever been to. While I wouldn’t call other departments where I have worked heartless, I got the impression from certain institutions where I have worked that while I wasn’t outright forbidden from serving the personal needs, rather than the academic needs, of my students, there was no encouragement to do so. One department head where I adjuncted lamented that so many students wanted the professors to be “Jesus to them.” For me, that remark was problematic, largely because I am called by my faith to be Jesus to anyone in my midst and beyond who needs an ambassador from Jesus. The Southeastern Louisiana University English department has a philosophy of holistic problem-solving with the student body. After all, how can one expect good academic results from students who have overwhelming crises in their personal lives?
The chair of the department encouraged us to reach out to students and tell them the resources the university was prepared to put at their disposal. Students who couldn’t make it to class would be excused for the first month if necessary for flood-recovery-related reasons. Students who couldn’t get textbooks or whose textbooks were destroyed could have electronic copies where necessary. Students without computers because of the flood could check out laptops from the university. Psychological counseling was available for trauma. And he said that he felt that our discipline was particularly well placed to help people answer the question of how one overcomes obstacles and remains hopeful in the face of tragedy. What else, after all, is literature for?
Indeed, my students were more subdued than other nervous first-day-of-school undergraduates. I asked how many people had either lost a home or knew someone who did, how many of them knew someone in emotional crisis — about a quarter of them raised their hands.
I was prepared for that response. Out of 16,000 students at Southeastern Louisiana University, about 7,000 live in parishes where the flooding destroyed many homes. I had already gotten emails from a number of students explaining that they had lost everything in the flood, but their parents were determined to get them to school. I congratulated them on making it to campus in a manner I would not have normally done had they not left melted plaster, murky carpets, and dangerous electrical boxes to get to campus.
I told them about the resources available on campus and saw a sea of grim faces, none of the typical feigned nonchalance of freshmen who want to appear cool but are still scared children. I decided to tell them about the opportunities that surviving a grown-up community problem presents. I talked about September 11th, which like so many other New Yorkers I did not watch on television but through a window, my friends who nearly died, the people the city lost, the sense of shallow mirth and false security the city lost in those days. I told them that I had learned in that crisis that a disaster like that allows an individual to prioritize — what really matters? It allows one to better become the person one intends to become, if one is willing to face the grief of the situation bravely. I could tell they were listening really intently to these words. They are, after all, already in the process of discovering who they will become as mature adults.
With that, I told them that I knew it was important for them to learn the subjects we would cover, as words are a form of power. Words may not control the weather, but they frame how we respond to storms of every kind. Would Britain have survived the Blitz without Churchill’s speeches? We will never know, but it would be impossible to imagine the crisis without the balm of his resolve. We need never know, thank God. Words are power. We build with them. Three holy book religions tell us the King of the universe creates with them, not with hammers and bulldozers — with words well-placed, and the material tools follow.
When I drove back to New Orleans, I saw that the receding flood waters had moved into Tangipahoa Parish near Manchac, making houses already on stilts look unstilted. There was an enormous rainbow in the sky over Lake Pontchartrain, vivid against a gray sky, and I was reminded of Genesis 6:13-16 — “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”
Indeed, Southeastern Louisiana University’s community is not destroyed. Some there lost houses but not hope. Others there are gaining purpose in lieu of trivia. Others still are taking up the call to serve others without complaint.