Stories, Learning & Place

Sunday, September 19, 2004

What kids can learn studying past community disasters
   Houghton Creek Fire

Houghton Creek Fire poster

The kids in Libby are going to study the Houghton Creek Fire from 1984. The study of past community disasters has the potential for being a wonderful group inquiry for a team of adolescents.

Generally the stories and memories associated with such events are dramatic and vivid, and how older people remember and discuss such events can shape the emotional intelligence of youth, which is a primary governor of their conduct. Montanans tend to like to tell the stories of disasters they’ve experienced. This is because, in general, we acquit ourselves well. In disasters, we have a chance to demonstrate the strengths of our character. During a typical Montana disaster, you will see people acting with resiliency, ingenuity, persistence, courage, intelligence, and selflessness.

In my work as an EMT, I recently helped with a disaster when the balcony of a local bar collapsed, sending over 50 people to the hospital. As EMTs got to the injured, they were often waved away by injured people who requested that more seriously injured people be taken care of first. The Polson Fire Department and ambulance service quickly got to work. Lighting was arranged. A triage area was organized and the patients were treated and sorted. Cars were towed to create an efficient route for emergency vehicles to cycle through the scene. Equipment and supplies were passed freely among agencies. The most badly injured people were transported first, which is a more amazing feat than it sounds, considering the tangled mass of bodies in the dark that the first EMTs encountered. The primary topic of conversation after the incident was how well the numerous agencies cooperated. Though there were some of the usual communications challenges, there were no turf battles. People took direction, figured out solutions, and took action. After barely an hour, all the patients had been transported to several area hospitals.

In dinner tables around Polson after that incident, many young people no doubt heard their parents talking about what had happened. And in the hearing, they learned that we are the kind of people who admire toughness and intelligence and resourcefulness and duty and selflessness. We aren’t born valuing such strengths. We learn them from stories--both those we experience and those we are told. The informal storytelling that goes on in our families and neighborhoods is a more powerful force in shaping the ethical bent of our young people than are formal ethics classes, with their analysis of abstract problems.

And yet not all went well on that dark and chaotic night in Polson. The most notable problem was that police weren’t able to help as much as we would have liked, because there was a rash of fights between young men about whose friends were going to be helped first. These young people interfered with helping those who were hurt. The excitement made them want to show off and strut their stuff. Where did they get their ideas about how a human being should act during a crisis? I’ve seen enough self-indulgent and self-centered people on MTV and similar shows to suspect that such modeling has something to do with it.

In any case, it isn’t true that all disasters reveal good character. But they all reveal character, good or bad. It’s quite sad that many adult Germans today do not feel it is possible to teach young people there to take pleasure in their identity as Germans. Young people can learn from both good and bad examples of character, as long as the teachers are willing to make such judgments.

We are lucky that in most small Montana towns, when bad things happen, plenty of people reveal themselves to be the sort of people that make you glad to call them friends and neighbors.

There are many things young people can learn from studying community disasters. They can learn to gather information from archives and from oral interviews. They can learn to read historical photos. They can learn to analyze evidence and evaluate sources. They can learn how to weave reports and fragments into a coherent narrative.

But in all that, they can also learn what sort of people we are. What sort of action we admire. What sort of behavior we dislike. What choices we make when situations get hard. And they can glimpse the reserves of diligence and endurance that people are capable of, which can help any of us hold ourselves to higher standard than we otherwise might have thought possible.

And we don’t need to make a big deal out of it to teach these things. We just need to find the right people and let them tell their stories.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 09/19 at 10:30 AM
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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