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Prime Time/Sue Bruns: Lessons learned from those I've taught

With recent stories about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and pictures showing the complete destruction of entire cities, we can only imagine the pain and heartache and the millions of stories of tragedy or survival.

While many of us have never experienced such devastation, we probably know people who have. One such story was written by a former student of mine several years ago, but the story has stayed with me. In the 25 years I taught high school English, I learned a great deal from the writings of my students.

Their stories often made me think about life, death, fate, love, loss, and disappointment. Re-viewing things through the eyes of teenage writers allowed me to remember how I thought and felt about things when I was their age and often caused me to re-live memories and to re-examine my own thoughts and beliefs.

One such writing was done by a young man I'll call Randy. I had assigned students to write about a memory from grade school. We had done some group brainstorming, and students had opportunities to test out possible topics with friends. They questioned one another to pry out more details from the recesses of their memories. Then they zeroed in on their subject and started to write.

I encouraged them to use rich, sensory details. If they weren't sure of the details, they should "fill in the blanks" of their memories with probable details. Then the students wrote, revised, shared their stories again, got more feedback and more suggestions, revised some more, and eventually shared their stories with the entire class in a writers' circle.

Randy wrote about an incident that occurred when he was in fourth grade. He described a storm warning that sent all of the children to the cafeteria in the basement of the school. As I read Randy's writing, I pictured myself and my fourth grade classmates, lining up in as orderly a fashion as possible, not for a drill, but for the real thing. Randy's details let me picture the churning of the trees outside as the children filed down the stairs, past the front door, into the basement. Randy's story let me hear the train-like chugging of the wind and the cracking trees. It let me see and hear and feel what he must have experienced as a fourth grader, huddled in the basement with a few hundred other grade school students, waiting for the storm to end.

Randy's description helped me to imagine the sudden silence when the storm had passed and everyone could return to their classrooms. I pictured myself getting up, following my teacher and classmates back to our classroom where we strained to look out the tall windows at the broken branches and scattered leaves and limbs in the school yard.

Randy went on to describe a call that came over the intercom, asking him and several other students to come to the office. All of the students who were called down had lived in a mobile home park on the north side of town, which, they were told, had been devastated by the storm. They would all board a school bus that would take them there to meet up with their families.

The bus ride, Randy said, was unusually quiet as the students sat in their seats, not knowing what to expect. As they neared the park, they were shocked at the extent of the tornado's damage: Tall trees had been snapped in half, hurled by the hand of the storm and had landed in bits and pieces in unnatural positions. Where about a hundred mobile homes had once been nestled in a wooded setting, there was now complete destruction. What had been mobile homes with families' possessions were now scraps of wood, pieces of twisted metal, shards of broken glass and litter of home appliances, furniture, clothing, toys and family photo albums.

The bus drove slowly along the debris-strewn road on the edge of the park. One by one, the children inside strained to find where their own homes had been. Gasps and cries and whimpers filled the bus. Randy still had not seen the spot where his own family's home had stood. As the bus rounded a curve, he was in utter shock at the scene before him. Rows and rows of broken and twisted homes lay on either side of his family's home, but the thing that took his breath away was not the damage to his home, but the fact that, of all the homes in the park, only his family's still stood, virtually untouched.

I cannot think of Randy's story without getting emotional. While he certainly had something unique to write about, what made it so powerful was the way he had focused on the details, had saved the final revelation until the very last few words, and had helped me to picture what this would have been like had it happened in my own life.

I recall Randy's story and the impact it still has on me whenever a similar story appears - where so much is destroyed - but some survive.

Misfortune often causes us to ask, "Why me? Why did this have to happen to me?" But Randy's story brings to mind the rhetorical flip side of this question: "Why me? Why was I spared?"

Sue Bruns is a retired Bemidji High School English teacher.