Soothing anxious childrren in unsure times

October 16, 2001|By Michael Olesker

YESTERDAY morning, with the radio reporting American bombing runs over Afghanistan, a third-grade teacher named Roz Echison glanced across the playground at Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore and prepared to welcome her class in the midst of the thing she called "the crisis."

"The crisis?" she was asked. "You mean the war?"

"The war?" she said. "No, I mean the cafeteria crisis."

On the first floor of the school, custodians were mopping the cafeteria floor. There was water all over the place. A pipe had burst, or a sink backed up when nobody was looking. The cause was a little unclear. But, with morning school bells about to ring, the daily routine of about 800 kids was in danger of disruption.

"The crisis," Echison said again, with a wry smile. "But we have school. You see? Life goes on."

All crises require perspective. A moment earlier, we were talking about these children and the troubles they see when they turn on the television: the terrorist attacks, the bombing retaliations, the bioterrorism in the mail, the anxiety scribbled on the faces of grownups.

When their parents are so clearly troubled, how do the kids handle it? In schoolrooms, part of the answer is: Don't change their routines; let them see that the comforting rhythms of life continue, and that their daily routines, and their safety, are not directly threatened.

"The first day after the New York attacks," Echison said, "they were very concerned. Some of them had wild stories. They heard City Hall was going to be bombed in Baltimore. They watched television and saw all the destruction in New York. But some of them, they're still trying to figure it out. If it's on TV, they're not sure if it's real, or just another TV story."

A guidance counselor made the rounds of Cross Country classes that first week. The children were given assurances: The president is handling the crisis, their teachers will always help them, and they should feel safe inside the school.

The message is reinforced daily. For now, on the leafy, sun-dappled playground behind the school, all pupils lined up with classmates and Principal Matthew Riley was going through a morning ritual with a bullhorn pressed against his face.

"I love you," he announced.

"I love you, Mr. Riley," the children called back.

"Dr. Hidalgo loves you," Riley said. Fernando Hidalgo is the assistant principal.

"I love Dr. Hidalgo," the children called back.

This is not a new expression of affection since the terrorist attacks; it is old business, which needs reinforcing now. There was comfort in the very melody of the children's voices, and more comfort in the message. The fundamental things still apply: They are loved by their protectors.

"We're trying to show them business as usual," Riley was saying, standing in a busy school corridor outside his office. "Safe and orderly, that's overriding. Their big concern is: Are we safe? Our job is to let them know they are, so that we can go on, and they can focus their minds, and they can learn."

It's part of the lesson the whole country's trying to absorb. The bombs fall half a world away, but the sense of siege has settled in here. Is it really safe to come out of our emotional bunkers and get on with our lives, to get on an airplane, visit a distant city, have dinner in a restaurant?

Around Baltimore, restaurants report drastic drops in business. State tourism officials are wringing their hands about collapsing revenues. In places that formerly rang with laughter, a joylessness prevails.

"What we try to do here," Rhonda Lewis was saying yesterday morning, "is comfort them." She teaches fourth grade at Cross Country. "The children saw the attacks in New York, and they'll ask, `What if it happened here? What if a plane comes this way?' One little boy asked, `Which way should we run?'"

Lewis has been teaching for 15 years. Like everyone else in America, she's never had to deal with such feelings of vulnerability.

"Every day," she said, "I pray that I'm going to see my family when I get home."

But those anxieties have to be hidden from her pupils. Some of them, she said, have become more clingy. They need more affection. Or they withdraw.

"I know what they're thinking," Lewis said, "because we talk about it in the teachers' room at lunchtime. We're all going through the same fears."

But children are resilient. As Lewis walked to her classroom, a bunch of kids romped on a sliding board, full of energy and full of delight. Others tossed a football across the big school playground.

Life goes on, if we let it. At Cross Country Elementary, the children watched the grownups handle the most threatening crisis of the morning yesterday. It was the problem in the cafeteria. The good guys (and a few mops) handled it all in stride.

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