the teacher from Christchurch

First thing in the morning – and getting ready to leave was unexpectedly coming to feel urgent.  I was catching my plane out of Nelson, and G. was driving me to the airport.  The hurry was puzzling – could the airport be so far away?  We drove the scenic route – a farewell to Nelson – up and down hills and through suburbs; past tiny old weatherboard sailors’ cottages of the late-nineteenth century.  I remembered those replicas of the Endeavour, and how we marvelled at the amount of kit that could fit into those narrow cabins.  These cottages put that into some perspective: they are not much more spacious, and whole lives were conducted in them.
We had things to see, and a stop to make – now the hasty departure made sense.  High up on the ridge, in a well-to-do leafy suburb above Nelson, G.’s friends have a must-see view over the beach and bits of the harbour.
They had a friend staying.  A friend of a friend.  An acquaintance, really.  A woman of a comfortable age, and figure – well-dressed, nicely made-up, and sensible-seeming: one of the many who had left devastated Christchurch
for a time, partly for refuge, but also because their absence was the best help they could give to the overstretched facilities.
We all chatted and smiled, drank coffee and went out onto the deck to admire the view.  Running stick figures, the few early risers, traced the sands, and a few dogs pranced along the wide acres left by the low tide.  When we asked her how she was doing her story began slowly, not yet routine.

‘We were so lucky.  We’d given them a late lunch hour so they were all still outside and we were having a staff meeting.  So – well – (and a pause) – we felt it starting and we did what you do.  We got under the big table and we were crouching there. (The penny dropped.  I could see smartly-dressed New Zealand primary school teachers – unwontedly helpless but totally practised, informed, disciplined.  Health and safety a deadly serious necessity.)  But they were all outside – and so they were safe. She didn’t have to say that the whole building had collapsed around them.
I think she planned to stop her story at that point – it felt like a climax, and a happy ending.  But we were quiet and attentive, and she went on.  ‘Then when the main shocks were over we went out into the playground.  They were crying of course and hysterical.  We got them into circles on the grass, everyone rubbing the back of the one in front – and they started to calm down a bit.  The ones who were really upset stayed close to me.
She made a little brushing gesture at her skirts, touching the memory of those little clinging sobbing children.  ‘ – and not one was hurt.  Then we took them up onto a little mound where it was safer.  As the story brought the children back to that safe place all over again, tears came to her eyes.  And again she had reached a place where the story stopped.
Did we prompt her to go on?  I don’t remember now.  Maybe I said ‘How did you get them home?’ (a stranger, I had nothing to lose and I really wanted to know).
‘Then we had to wait for parents to collect them.  Lots of cuddles and back-rubbing and singing (did she say singing?).  But with the traffic in the city centre . . .(a pause, when we saw again that live TV footage of bridges buckling, and cars tipped up, and the gridlocked streets liquefying).  Parents couldn’t get out of the city centre for hours.  In the end everyone was collected by a parent or a relative.
When did the last one go home?
‘About six thirty she said (or something like that).
She had kept those terrified children sane and comforted for over five hours, this stoic, utterly professional, cool-headed genius.  Is back-rubbing in a circle her own invention?  Is it written down in some teachers’ manual for disaster management?
On TV they were advising us all to let people talk it out, to listen as many times as needed.  I hope she has been listened to again and again – and somehow I feel confident that she has.

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3 Responses to “the teacher from Christchurch”

  1. Avril Says:

    Powerful story.

  2. Josie Buckland Says:

    I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like. The worst thing that ever happened to me was when a school I was at in East London came under an arson attack from a student with a grudge. I had left some students in my room on the 3rd floor practising for a play whilst I went to get them some lunch. My room was on the same level as the office which had come under attack . I couldn’t get back to them because of the smoke and the fire people forced me back down the stairs. The whole level was gutted and it was an hour before I found out that the group were safe. They had all decided they needed a loo break whilst waiting for lunch! I cried for an hour when I saw them all safe and sound! But it’s hard to know how we would ever cope with a massive natural disaster……..i guess you do what you have to do but it must leave you with nightmares and you must be wondering all the time if your family are all OK.

  3. albertine Says:

    That does sound shattering, Josie. It’s the whole ‘in loco parentis’ thing, I guess, which describes that intense sense of responsibility and goes far beyond mere duty.
    When my aunt (now aged ninety-two) retired from teaching she said that her proudest memory was that no-one had ever been injured in her care. Given that she had actually taught a lot of things to a lot of kids over a long career, that’s quite an interesting sidelight.

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