I’ve been wondering what I would write of Galveston five months after Hurricane Ike. Even now, thousands are without homes, many still without water, and electricity is just now starting to be restored on Bolivar peninsula. And so we took 64 students to help: they cleared debris, assembled roofs, gutted homes and churches, restored furniture, organized water relief, built fences, cleaned cemeteries (even filling graves). . . . It was an amazing week of work.
But I admit I’ve been curious about the discussion afterwards. To be sure, many are rightly impressed by ROHS students: each raised $600 to work 50 sweaty hours, endure two 24+ hour bus rides, and share only 4 cold shower stalls through the week. Inevitably, though, the measuring begins. . .
A reporter from the Free Press calls and kindly explains that what we did isn’t news anymore. After all, it has already happened, and the Freep needs to report on what’s current. Is there any way, he asks, that we can put a spin on the story to make it more “present?” Otherwise, it just won’t run as news.
A representative from a local organization calls wishing to honor the students but, she says, she wants only the students who do not earn NHS hours for their work. That way, she says, we can know that the selected students are really the ones with altruistic motives.
Someone complains to me this past week that these students got a warm “vacation” and now are being rewarded for it.
I remember telling our group early Thursday morning, “Take photos of everything. It’s important because I know you will share them; and we have to share what’s still going on down here.”
Hurricane Ike already happened; so it’s no longer news. The students have already made the trip; so it’s no longer news. If the students receive any kind of credit, their motives are therefore suspect. Working in a natural disaster area is somehow a vacation.
And so we spin it. I fish for a Free Press angle: it’s an illustrative option for the upcoming college spring break; the students are fulfilling President Obama’s call for the national service the night before. In the end, we settle on an awards ceremony to cover. The students will be honored at a School Board meeting with the President’s Volunteer Service Award. Photo opportunity.
I find the students who aren’t in NHS; I nominate them for the local awards program. (And I invite the complainer to attend next year’s “vacation.”)
The honors for the students are secondary—I can compromise on these, celebrate them where we can and should (local newspapers, our superintendent’s accolades, etc.), because any kind of award is a kind of news, a promotion of the extreme need which remains in Texas, dwelling in FEMA trailers, seeking bottles of clean water, avoiding toxins spilled across the mainland.
For me, our greatest success was spurring a KHOU (Houston) news story on our visit which may air on CNN. The story won’t include Royal Oak students, but it will highlight the thousands of buildings needing demolition or restoration, the ongoing struggle of residents rebuilding their lives by hand because they have no other recourse. No one down there asked us if what we were doing was newsworthy, if the students would earn credit for their work. When you’re cleaning the mold from a chest, evicting cockroaches from behind rotting shingles, securing the roof against the rain, or sweeping a gravestone clean, everyone knows it.
News stories apparently have about a 30-day life span, if Galveston is any measure. The country quickly turned its attention elsewhere. After all, that was about the time Madonna and Guy Ritchie announced their divorce.
Somewhere along the line, the story focus gets reversed. In order to make the Crystal Beach devastation news again, we must do something provocative to draw attention to it. Human misery is one thing, but enduring human misery is just boring. So we draw attention to the work of students who commit to service as a catalyst for the larger story.
Student work in a soup kitchen is a story, but we don’t write about the homeless—we wouldn’t dare mention that the average age of the homeless person in America is nine years old! Students raise money for UNICEF or Invisible Children, but we don’t write about child soldiers or developing world health concerns.
The creation of news—present, local, human interest—is itself a questionable matter. If we are to write about the stories which affect the most people in the most significant way, the choices should be obvious. This week, anyway, not so much—and I accept the news coverage of our trip only because it seems the only road back to Texas need.
Finally, I must write a word or two about the commitment to service. No NHS signatures are worth the money these students raised to participate; no service credits or Presidential pins will stand against the experience of pulling rotten and soaking insulation down on your head. Somehow the debate on community service in high school has come down to whether or not it should be required for diplomas, as if threatening students into volunteerism will breed good citizenship.
Of course this is nonsense. The kind of commitment which drives 64 students to make this trip has nothing to do with threats or rewards, regardless of what they are ultimately offered for it. If there is a reason why we have not created a school where 1600 students make such a trip, it might be because we are not sincerely telling them the stories of need, but only the stories of service award.
Here is the need. Measure it how you will: