The other day I found myself, just like all the other teachers in my school, leading a monthly character lesson. This one happened to be on empathy. My students and I talked about the novel, "Wonder," and the importance of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those in need of support. We discussed how we can make the world a better place through how we choose to treat others. Students dutifully participated in the activity, but it felt very theoretical—probably because it was. Just a few hours later, our district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) announced school closures for Thursday and Friday in response to the threat posed to North Carolina by Hurricane Florence. The statement opened by saying “Together, we can be the neighbors we teach our students to be.” It continued,
Hurricane Florence has forced evacuations to emergency shelters and we must consider safety in new ways. CMS is proud to serve our state and region by opening several CMS school campuses as emergency shelters led by the Red Cross in partnership with other agencies.
Parent reactions to CMS’s decision were predictably mixed, with some praising the move but others choosing to see the issue only in terms of the personal inconvenience posed by unexpectedly having to take care of their own children:
See For Yourself
Thursday morning I took my son and daughter to East Mecklenburg High School under sunny blue skies to see shelter preparations firsthand. On the way there we talked about what 30-plus inches of rain and winds over 100 miles per hour can do to your home, of the destruction caused by storm surge and flash flooding, of the implications of living with no electricity or clean water for days on end. When we got to the high school, evacuees had just begun to trickle in. In the gymnasium, dozens of cots with Red Cross blankets on them lined the floor in neat rows. A handful of kids sat playing games and coloring at a table and a gentleman sat alone in the bleachers reading his Bible. An enthusiastic group of volunteers stood ready to welcome some of the
more than one million people expected to evacuate coastal areas of the Carolinas. It was a powerful lesson for my kids in the importance of identifying with how others are feeling and providing support when we’re able to do so. I’ll grant you that there probably aren’t a lot of CMS students complaining about having some unexpected days off school, whatever the reason. But let’s not miss the opportunity for them to learn an essential, real-life lesson. Our kids won’t learn to be the people we want them to be through hearing us talk. They’ll learn it through watching our actions. And I’m very proud of the actions that my school district and community are taking to provide help to those in need.
Red Cross set up cots in the gym of East Mecklenburg High School.
A Red Cross trailer sits outside the East Mecklenburg High School gymnasium.
Justin Parmenter is a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was named a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher of the year in 2016 and currently serves as a fellow with Hope Street Group's North Carolina Teacher Voice Network.