Earthquake Writing

susan_bernstein
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Earthquake Writing

Neurodivergent Teaching

 

On Friday April 5 at 10:23 a.m. at my home in Queens, N.Y., the furniture began to shake. 

It was the day after a class art museum field trip and workshop and I was at home making a multimedia project for my students. The project was a collage designed around one of my favorite James Baldwin quotes that I pasted in the center: “All Safety is an Illusion.” 

My partner was away for the morning. Our cat was in the other room with a door between us. The cat is always curious about my multimedia materials, and who can blame him? But his curiosity necessitated a closed door. 

I hastily packed up my materials so I could open the door. By then the furniture was no longer shaking, and I realized that we had been in an earthquake. I had been in several earthquakes before but never managed to feel the shaking. I mostly slept through them, and for one I was in the depths of the subway on a moving train. 

But this one didn’t feel like much. There didn’t seem to be too much disruption in the other room, though the cat was not happy. The news said the earthquake was magnitude 4.8. In Manhattan, the trains appeared to be running on time, and structural damage was minor to non-existent. The news showed footage from viewers’ home security cameras. There was a bit of shaking and then all was still. 

Screenshot of an emergency alert from my phone: Earthquake in the NYC area. A correction was offered later. The earthquake was 4.8 magnitude, not 4.7. Photo by Susan Bernstein April 5, 2024Screenshot of an emergency alert from my phone: Earthquake in the NYC area. A correction was offered later. The earthquake was 4.8 magnitude, not 4.7. Photo by Susan Bernstein April 5, 2024

Soon afterward we received an emergency alert with an all-clear to “continue usual activities.” But what did that mean exactly? That everything was somehow back to normal? That we could go about our business and forget about what had just happened? I continued working on “All Safety is an Illusion.”

Screenshot of an emergency alert from my phone: All clear with a possibility of aftershocks. Photo by Susan Bernstein April 4, 2024Screenshot of an emergency alert from my phone: All clear with a possibility of aftershocks. Photo by Susan Bernstein April 4, 2024

The earthquake happened three days before the solar eclipse. The next day, Saturday Night Live offered a “Weekend Update” piece about these two events, featuring the Earthquake and the Eclipse. Laughter helped release tears. I didn’t think I was scared at the time of the earthquake, but the mayor’s response was slow, and when the response finally came, we were told to stay inside. 

The night of the earthquake, I had a nightmare about being alone in the dark, so it felt good to laugh. The day of the eclipse, my partner and I watched the NASA live stream of the eclipse unfolding across North America. In Queens, the eclipse was partial, but we knew folks in the middle of the U.S. who experienced full totality. From their texts, I felt awe and wonder. It was clear that words weren’t enough to describe the experience. 

At the same time, I thought of my students. I considered what might be helpful for them to grow their writing. My students this semester are far from home, and many are overseas for the first time. What would they need to process at this moment? I attempted a prompt for an in-class writing activity:

Since we last met, our city has experienced an earthquake and a partial eclipse. With that in mind, I invite you to reflect (in writing and/or drawing) on what one or both of these events means to you. Include quotes from our James Baldwin readings to ground your writing. If you made a drawing, write down what you made and why.

With insights from trauma-informed care (which includes attention to “safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment voice and choice, and cultural, historical, and gender issues”), as well as an understanding that not everyone might want to write about traumatic experiences, I also offered in-class writing options that would offer students opportunities to reflect on our field trip to the art museum, which was the subject of a major essay whose due date was impending.

Most of the students chose to write about the earthquake. 

I considered how the major essay assignment could be tweaked to include the earthquake writing. The goal of the assignment is to document experiential learning, to offer words to process an experience. 4 days afterward, writing about the earthquake seemed to provide such an experience. As they reported from small groups, some of the students mentioned that they found a powerful connection to Baldwin’s words: “All safety is an illusion.”

James Baldwin: “All safety is an Illusion.” Collage and photo by Susan Bernstein. April 5, 2024James Baldwin: “All safety is an Illusion.” Collage and photo by Susan Bernstein. April 5, 2024

As a writing teacher, I understand that words can be imperfect substitutes for experience. What’s more important, it seems to me, is the effort to find words–or, as Baldwin suggests, “the effort behind the words.” Success isn’t guaranteed, and that ought to be a given. Words can’t be forced. The hope is, however, that teachers and students, writing together, can find the time and space to open ourselves to discover possibilities for words, especially in the presence of earthquakes and their aftershocks. 

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.