On Tuesdays, Harvey, and Learning in War-Time

Twenty families from my school were flooded during the storm. Others lost power for several days, and all of us watched helicopter and boat rescues happening just a few miles from our homes. Time seemed suspended for a week; by Tuesday, August 29th, few Houstonians knew what day it was, and the foreseeable future only extended as far as Labor Day, with the entire workforce of Houston wondering when it should report to duty.

For most teachers and students, that day was yesterday, September 11th. Two weeks after Harvey’s devastating rains pummelled Houston, the schools opened their doors again, only to remember another heartbreaking day for Americans with flags at half-mast and videos of planes crashing into towers. And as Florida and the surrounding islands face 15-foot storm surges and the West Coast prays for some sort of salvation from the flames, teachers around Houston welcomed their students back to school.

Last Tuesday, September 5th, was my first day back to school as a teacher, and at first it didn’t seem right. We anxiously asked colleagues how they had weathered the storm; many of us left work that afternoon to volunteer at shelters or clean out homes; some returned to places that weren’t home, without any possessions they could call their own. Yet, there we were, planning curriculum and preparing our classrooms.

What do you do when the most routine part of life—the school day or work day—is interrupted by events outside of your control? When it’s not just your personal day, but an entire city’s? For days, Houstonians watched volunteers drop everything and head our way with boats and supplies, eager to respond to disaster quickly. Many people literally saved lives during the storm for no other reason than seeing the water rising on the news and deciding they had to do something about it. The situation repeated itself with work teams reporting for duty in Houston neighborhoods, tearing out drywall and wood floors and cabinets.

But now, Houstonians must return to work, even while the disaster continues. Many spend their weekends tearing apart flooded homes or volunteering in shelters or cooking meals for those in need. But this question has haunted me for the past couple of weeks: How can we devote ourselves to life as usual while so many are trying to recover and others are being hit by new disasters? Is there such a thing as normalcy in a world with Harveys and Irmas and fires and terrorists?

C.S. Lewis addressed this during World War II. In a speech given to Oxford students in 1939, he reminds us that there is no such thing as normalcy; we’ve merely convinced ourselves that every day we live in security. Students in 1939 were obviously concerned about their own responsibilities, their own families, their own survival. Why go to school? But Lewis reminds students that there is something much larger at stake: “But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell.” After apologizing for the language in his polite British way, he goes on: “…we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology.”

For Lewis, war merely aggravates the normal human situation: that all things come to pass. He claims that there will always be a distraction to study—whether it be love or war or politics or jobs.

As a teacher, Harvey has only increased my desire to read great texts with my students. A few weeks ago, I addressed how Charlottesville made me consider my curriculum in light of my students deciding which rally to attend or protest to join. The same goes for Harvey—my students are the future first responders, the future mayors and city officials, the future generation that will be calling the shots and saving lives during the next Harvey. I want to equip them to make those decisions.

Lewis, as always, has a broader, more eternal vision:

 “All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”

It is Tuesday, September 12th, and our city has gone back to work. The tension within all of us, of doing our jobs or learning or teaching post-Harvey’s destruction, is one that has been there all along: there is no promise of tomorrow or of security, and yet we go about our lives each day. May we humbly offer ourselves to what we are called to do each hour, whether that be engineering, cleaning out homes, serving food, or learning.


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