By Executive Director Paul Stein
In April 1980 a train collision in Somerville caused a massive leak of highly toxic and corrosive gas into the community. A large cloud of this toxic gas hung over the city. Approximately 17,000 people were evacuated from the area, and over 500 people went to hospitals for treatment.
I was then a young math teacher in Somerville at the very beginning of my career. I remember going to stay that night at a friend’s house in Cambridge as my Somerville home was not safe. What I remember the most, however, is earlier that day telling the students in my alternative high school that they could not leave the school until the authorities gave the “all clear.”
As we waited, the tension and anxiety heightened. Staff members masterfully kept things calm, and kept things going. One student became increasingly agitated. He could not contain himself and, in an act of defiance, bolted out of the building. Fortunately, he was found shortly afterwards having run straight to his house. Nonetheless, it was a frightening episode in an already distressing day.
Community. Empathy. Responsibility.
The strong sense of community among staff and students ultimately carried the day. The staff helped ease anxieties, provide support, and strengthen the bonds among students and themselves – as often can happen in hard times. This one incident was small goings-on in the big picture, and there is much more to this story about the work of the mayor, the firefighters, the hospitals, and of course, the citizens of Somerville.
Forty years after this incident, confined as we are due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my thoughts drift back to that April day and, specifically, to the boy who bolted. He was afraid. I understood that. He acted against his self-interest. I understood that also. I, along with my exasperated colleagues, felt empathy and responsibility.
We rallied and welcomed him back into the community. In reflecting on what is now happening amidst school building closures and social distancing, I think about the importance of community. I think about the children who need our assurances so they can turn toward their creative, resilient selves. I think about how teachers feel both empathic and responsible, and how they turn these emotions into guideposts in the face of exasperating circumstances.
Community. Empathy. Responsibility. These are all guiding lights throughout Schools for Children. The presence of each has grown stronger in the face of these challenging times. Even remotely, they have never been more powerfully felt. They truly carry the day in lasting ways.