Usually during the first week of classes, the campus is filled with high spirits and lots of energy, but this week has been pretty somber. Here in the northeast, few of my students have any connection to New Orleans, but the media images have for many of them stirred up memories of September 11th. Many of them remember what it was like to have missing family, to lose contact with friends, to wait and hope desperately for a phone call that would tell them that someone they loved was still alive.
Many of my scientist students keep shaking their heads in disbelief, their logical minds trying to comprehend what is happening. "But everyone knew that this was coming, that a storm like this was inevitable. How is that the government had no plan to evacuate the poor, the elderly, the children? How could this happen? We had all the data we needed years ahead of time."
Even as my New York City students make the comparison to the World Trade Center coming down, the rural students express their frustration at how helpless they feel. "In a small town, you can help out when something happens. You let people sleep on your couch, you cook them up some good food, you let them chill at your house," said one of my small town students. "But all this is so far away. There is so little we can do."
And as the week went on, the anger was building - anger at the Bush administration. "Last November was so depressing," said one student, "but now .... this is even worse. Maybe it's because he is no longer running for election, but he is not even pretending to care. I am so angry I could puke."
Several times I heard: "I cannot believe this is happening here, in this country." Other students are not surprised. They seem resigned.
In one class, I had a student who said something like, "Well, people were stupid not to evacuate." I didn't even say anything; classmates were quick to question his statement. "How would you evacuate if you didn't own a car? What if you couldn't afford a hotel? What if you were elderly or sick? Yeah, you say just walk, but where would you walk to? And who can afford to evacuate every single time a storm comes?" Students were pretty quick to point out the privileges that come with race and class in this country, privileges that could mean life or death in a hurricane.
These conversations were the undercurrent of the week, during slow times in my office, during the sunny weather out on the quad, in the snack bar where I have breakfast, or during the ten minutes before class when I chat with the students as they arrive. Sadness, anger, disbelief. That is how this semester is beginning.