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After Florence, Wilmington Teacher Looks To Support Students Through Their Loss - And Her Own

New Hanover County teacher Jenna Parker looks through her planner at her desk in her second grade classroom at Anderson Elementary School in Wilmington.
Lisa Philip

Since the day Hurricane Florence began battering the North Carolina coast, WUNC’s education reporters have been following staff and families in New Hanover County Schools, as they first weathered the storm, and now work to put their classrooms and schools back together.

Teacher Jenna Parker is putting the little chairs back at the little tables in her second grade classroom at Anderson Elementary School in Wilmington. Each student’s spot is labeled with a nametag. Parker starts peeling one off.

“This name tag’s going away,” she says. “This child is not going to be coming back to sit in this seat when they get back."

Parker gestures to the rest of the table, where four name tags remain.

Those students are going to wonder where that child went, she says, and why he isn't there.

“But you know, you don’t put it in the trash,” Parker says. “You put it in your desk in the hopes that they come back at some point.”

This is the first day Parker has been in her classroom in three weeks. On the Monday night before Florence hit, she and her husband moved their daughter’s toys from the backyard to the garage, and got ready to leave.

“I'm putting my daughter down and I'm [thinking], ‘This is the last time she's going to sleep in this crib,’” she says. “‘It may not be here when we get back.’”

Parker had spent the day having difficult conversations with her students.

“Lesson plans with standards and stuff went out the window, and it became a family environment,” Parker says. “Just focusing on getting ready, talking about their fears, reassuring them that parents are making plans, [and] going to keep them safe.”

Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC
Teacher Jenna Parker tidies up the cubbies in her second grade classroom at Anderson Elementary School in Wilmington on Oct. 2, 2018. Her students are returning to school in two days -- after missing more than three weeks of class because of Hurricane Florence.

She hugged her students as they walked out of her classroom, she says, “because you never know what's going to happen.”

At 4 a.m. the next day, Parker and her husband loaded their three dogs and 2-year-old daughter into the car and hit the road. They headed to a relative’s house in Florida.

“The biggest thing for me was just kind of shielding my daughter from it,” Parker says.

“I mean, she's 2, so she only understands a little bit. But she realizes we got in the car and drove for hours and stayed at family's house for days,” Parker says. “And after a couple of days she's saying, ‘I wanna go home momma, I wanna go home.’ And she's taking her little purse and standing by the door.”

'Kids Are So Resilient'

The day after the storm hit Wilmington, Parker’s mother-in-law was able to check on their house. She had stayed in town.

“We expected a little bit of damage. We expected to have some water leaks,” Parker says. “And to hear my mother-in-law talk to my husband on the other end of the phone and say, ‘What is important in your bedroom that you want? Because half of your ceiling is down already…’”

Parker and her husband came back to a water-logged house strewn with insulation, sheetrock, and moldy furniture.

“It was our first house. We bought it right before we got married and we've made renovations to it since we've moved in,” Parker says. “We brought our daughter home there and to see all of that ruined…”

The only room that stayed dry was their daughter’s. So that night that Parker thought might be her daughter’s last in her own crib, wasn’t. When Parker and her husband moved into their temporary rental, they were able to recreate their daughter’s bedroom.

“After we had unpacked the stuff that we brought, and brought her into her room and said, ‘Look at your room. This is your room at our house for now,’” Parker says. “And she's like, ‘My bed, my room, my toys!’ And she has slept better there than she had in weeks….Kids are so resilient. And I think her having those familiar things has made this so much easier for her.”

She hopes the same goes for her students, who have been out class for more than three weeks, when they come back to school in a couple of days. Fortunately, her classroom didn’t have any damage.

“Even if these kids are suffering through things at home being different, or...damage is happening to their house, they're going to get to walk through these doors and see something familiar for them,” says Parker. “It’ll be normal. It’ll be walking into home for them.”

Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC
Teacher Jenna Parker points at the month of September in her planner; she and her students missed school for most of that month because of Hurricane Florence.

Lisa Philip is an occasional contributor to WUNC. Previously, she covered education for the station and covered schools in Howard County, Maryland for the Baltimore Sun newspapers.
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