Between Bulls and Mosquitoes

Between Bulls & Mosquitoes

At 2:28 pm, May 12th 2008, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan Province.  Reports say that a new micro-blog site recently introduced—called Twitter—broke the story before CNN or the U.S. Geological Survey. For those in the upper elevations closest to the epicenter, it was a thunderclap of  subterranean fury, triggering staggering rock slides of “huge boulders the size of SUVs,” engulfing the villages below.


The earth turned over, a pastoral green giving way to an excavation of brown.  Sudden valleys became repositories for “quakelakes.”

The first reports were vague.  “An earthquake has struck China” and then “in Sichuan province.”  Driving into downtown Seattle, I frantically switched stations and learned that the Twitter message had come from a hilly section of Wenchuan County, the epicenter.

The name was immediately familiar.  I had visited the Wolong National Nature Reserve in that country to see the highly endangered giant pandas. Some later reported that the pandas at Wolong had been pacing wildly before the earthquake.  They must have been screaming now.

Then I heard, “Dujiangyan.” This was not possible, I thought.  I didn’t hear that correctly.

I pulled the car to the side of the road, my eye twitching, my gorge rising.   Then the news came cascading in. Buried villages. Twisted roads.  The roar of apocalypse. I raced home.  At first, there was no video, but by the afternoon, tourists on foot and motorcycle had sent in footage from Qingcheng mountain and Dujiangyan.  I swerved into a big-box parking lot and stood in front of a bank of flat-screen televisions at Best Buy.

All that past week, NPR’s Melissa Block and Robert Siegel had been recording interviews for a piece called “Chengdu Diary.”  I had been following the story with keen interest.  When the earthquake hit, she was discussing the issue of religion just outsid a church. “What’s going on?” she asks as the ground rumbles.  She described the scene:  “The whole building is shaking.  The whole building is shaking.  My Goodness.

In a tone somewhere between a reporter’s propensity to ask questions and the realization that something terrible had just happened, she blurts: “Oh my Goodness, we’re in the middle of an earthquake?  The whole block is shaking! The…the top of the church is falling down! The ground is shaking and all the people are running out into the street.”

Melissa Block: “We’re standing here. The birds are flying.  The ground is undulating under my feet. The cross on top of the church is swaying violently and bricks are falling off of the ceiling, falling off of the roof.  People are huddled here on the street. The shaking seems to be slowing down.  I can still feel vibrations underneath. Everybody has run out in the street. There are crowds gathered. Somebody is naked…”

The NPR office in D.C. was able to reach Melissa Block again.  Alex Chadwick then asks:  “Where are you now?”  Reporting from a car, she responds:  “We are trying to get to the city of Dujiangyan city…” Buildings had crumbled into a heap of white dust and glass—”tofu buildings,” as many later described them.

And then more description:  “Screams everywhere.  Parents rushing to the schools, wailing.”  The names of the schools were made public.  Xinjian School. Juyuan Middle School. These were the names of the schools that would host our next seminars.  I gagged.

I tried the our funder’s office in California.  They couldn’t get through to the China office.  I tried another.  Most of their employees in China were accounted for, they said.  I called, sent text messages and enlisted everyone I knew so that I could get a message to Mr. Zhang.

The only colleague I could get in touch with was Yong Zhao, Ph.D, a Distinguished Professor at the College of Education, Michigan State University, and a pioneer in the field of globalization, technology, and education reform and a friend who was born in Chengdu.  Maybe he had some kind of connection.

In a surreal moment, I glanced at his schedule.  He was to speak at my daughters’ local high school in Seattle that night.  He had spent the day amongst teachers and principals and received the news right before getting on the plane to arrive here.  Of all places and times! I raced over to the lecture, just in time to reconnect and offer to take him back to the airport.

We spent a few moments at a diner wired and silent, bereft and lost.  He boarded his plane and I raced home again.  Into the night, I paced and networked and watched the same news video footage again and again, shell-shocked.

In the morning, I called everyone I knew to ask about relief efforts.  Without an appointment or plan, I drove over to the University of Washington and knocked on doors until I found that Steve Harrell, a UW anthropologist, was holding an open forum to discuss what his students, studying at Sichuan University, were doing.  Steve Margitan and Geoff Morgan, in Chengdu, had already formed China Earthquake Aid in order to assist relief efforts with water, tents, and quilts, making certain to coordinate their efforts with a stream of military trucks dispatched to the region.

Two days later, Director Zhang Qing had, indeed, received my message. His response to an interpreter, then to me, was short: “Can you help?”

It took two weeks, but I got on a plane.  Chengdu was damaged, but this was not a devastating scene. Brief meetings with colleagues in Chengdu were interrupted by a barrage of phone calls.  On the way to Dujiangyan, the high-tech corridor seemed intact, though there was a clear military presence.  The closer we got, the more we saw cracks in walls and several damaged homes.  Billboard advertisements were replaced with a white background and one-line Chinese phrases about being strong and working together.  They felt strangely consoling, as if someone is watching out for us.

As we got closer, army trucks filled with soldiers and supplies were coming and going from centralized command centers.  Several soldiers were leaning against the metal railings, asleep, having worked 24-hour shifts.  Makeshift camps lined the highway.

I could not recognize the city.  Whole city blocks gone. Concrete chunks hanging

from the smashed rib-cages of hotels, stores, and schools.   The only part of a classroom I could recognize was a blackboard on a second story.  Above it, the Chinese characters for “Self-confidence and Happiness.”

On a sidewalk, I spied a white limb of a mannequin and new clothes amidst the swirl of debris. Apartment buildings disemboweled and abandoned.  Plowed to the side of the roads, like filthy snow banks after a sudden storm, heaps of furniture, twisted metal, roof tiles—whole families’ private lives made rudely public.

A member of Zhang Qing’s staff met me in front of the building where our negotiations took place.  His instructions were to show me the damage.  Recognizing the car’s official plates, guards did not detain us.

Director Zhang met me at an office building that had somehow been spared.  He was a changed man, exhausted, wan, distracted.  His family was safe, he said, and looked away.  I did not pursue any more questions about teachers, schools, or students.  No questions Our first meeting lasted only 10 minutes. He did hold out his hand again and grasped mine.

His staff asked me if I wanted tea.  I declined, but it came anyway. They were preparing me for the next stop, a shelter and temporary school.  Somehow, Zhang had made it clear that I need not be protected, that there was no need for saving face, that I was family.  We arrived during lunchtime, and students were standing outside a tent, metal tins in hand.

Mr. Zhang’s team motioned to a man supervising the student line.  He was asked to tell his story.  We gathered a couple of chairs and positioned them so that he could keep an eye on the students. He began slowly, methodically and clinically, as if he were being deposed, each sequence of events stamped, minute by minute.

I expected some level of sadness as he got closer to the human tragedy, but I was caught off guard by what he said next.  As was customary, he had escorted half his class to a one-story language lab at 2:25 pm so that they could begin at 2:30 pm.  A  math instructor took the other half.  “My daughter was in the classroom that was flattened.”  I placed my hand on his knee.  He began to crumple.

“Why couldn’t it have been me?”  He was pale, then flushed, as if he had suddenly come down with the flu.  Sweating, then shivering, he swooned.  I caught him.  “An hour earlier, she would have been in the other class…”  Someone brought him water, two colleagues lifted him up.  He looked back and thanked me.  For what? I asked myself.  To be a witness to suffering?As the day progressed, some teachers were stonily silent, others angry, still others unable to finish their stories.

I learned that Mr. Zhang had consistently been a stalwart campaigner for structurally-retrofitted or new—earthquake ready—buildings.  Under his watch, a new high-school under construction had sustained little damage. Many other schools contained little rebar, just brick upon brick, and a shoddy mix of sand and concrete.  Two weeks after the earthquake, classrooms without walls—one after another. And across the street, staircases stood without classrooms to connect.

What remained of Juyuan Middle School, where up to 900 children died, was sealed off and guarded, though we were allowed to travel along an access road.

They say that one death is a tragedy and thousands of deaths are a statistic.  But a sudden shrine, built by parents, is an unspeakable horror—shrines supported by bamboo poles over which parents had draped canvas.  Each shrine included shelves with pictures, in frames, of their lost children, like a macabre crowd-sourced classroom photo of the dead.  In front of each shrine, two tables held water and flowers for sons and daughters in heaven. Banners expressed rage:  “Painful Mourning for Undeserved Children.”

Backpacks were strewn everywhere. Pink ones with Disney characters, full ones with steno-pads and colored pencils pouring out like a flood of pick-up sticks.  Surrounding the shrines, wreaths hung on easels or barriers.  We had already returned to our car when I caught a glimpse of a young boy, twisting himself through an opening he managed to spread in a temporary chain-link fence.  He stood in front of the shrine for a moment, head bowed.  Once he caught sight of us, he ran away.

Zhang was unable to meet with me again on that trip, and so I relayed a message that I would return soon.  A member of his staff relayed the message:  “You have a saying in America: a friend in need is a friend indeed.”  I had to do something.

Our funder humanely agreed to defer the grant for science-inquiry training so that we could support recovery and relief efforts.  Though the discovery of bodies was still taking place while I was there, caterpillars were hauling away debris.

Somehow, we had to connect inquiry science and safety, education and earthquakes.

Enter Solmaz Mohadjer, a Teachers Without Borders member from our early days.  A geologist concerned about the state of earthquake science education, particularly in developing countries, wrote:  “I can help.”  I called immediately.  “We need your help!” I shouted, apologizing for my tone.

Having conducted GPS geodesy in Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan as a graduate student, Solmaz relayed how one of her students in India described her intense fear of earthquakes, and confessed limited knowledge as to what to do if another one would strike. Having experienced the Bam earthquake in her native Iran, she put it all together and developed a science and safety curriculum, beginning with Middle School students in Tajikistan.  In earthquake prone areas throughout Central Asia, she had noticed, students knew very little about natural phenomenon, structural and nonstructural hazards.  There was little about prevention or protection.

Once again, leaders aren’t born or made;  they just show up.

Though Solmaz was finishing her degree at the University of Montana, she continued to send curriculum units with pre- and post-assessment and hands-on, active learning activities centered around the physical processes of earthquakes.  Defining herself as a scientist first and a teacher second, she nevertheless had extraordinary instincts about when and how to introduce the topics and move through them.  In her lessons, students built, operate, and observe a landslide experiment using a cookie pan, sand, soil, gravel, and flat rocks. They then triggered phenomena such as earthquakes (by shaking the inclined cookie pan) and heavy rain or snow (by adding water). Students identified setup variables, discussed how changing each variable affected the experiment outcome (making predictions), tested the variables, and collected, recorded, interpreted, and evaluated their results.

Her simulation lessons showed hazards and mitigation strategies designed in such a way that students could construct where all of it was heading.  She built in time for practice, posed problems for students to address, provided a structure so that students would work in groups and individuals could demonstrate their command of the material.  Her lessons concluded with a book-making project for so that students could show what they had learned.

Solmaz showed how the Nacho theory of taking an idea from one place and simply transplanting it in another, without facts and context, could be catastrophic.  “Not all earthquakes are created equal,”  she explains. “Earthquakes are complex scientifically and regionally specific.  Some buildings sway, while others sink.”  In many cases, an automatic “drop and cover” response, without understanding the terrain and the buildings, could result in death.  Teachers must know the difference.  They need to know the science.

There it was—inquiry science in action—the inextricable connection between science and safety, safety and community welfare, community welfare and true change.  We had our program – Earthquake Science and Safety.

Solmaz needed to complete one more training in Tajikistan during the winter of 2008.  “I know it’s painful,” she said, “but you can’t do anything right now.”  We were in it for the long haul, I reminded myself. Solmaz’s scientific credibility, personal alacrity, and deep commitment were all I needed to know that we would do the right thing, in good time.


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