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What Jamal Saw: Finding the Disaster Aftermath in the Face of a Child

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If anniversaries of terrible occasions are good for anything, they help us focus on not just the event in question, but its long aftermath. I continue to work with John Mutter, a Columbia University professor who studies the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The deep question has always been: how do you fully quantify, or even qualify, the effects of such a disaster? Dr. Mutter's work has focused on direct and indirect deaths, but he takes in the pain of survivors as well, be it PTSD or other mental health issues, knowing that these consequences must be accounted for, or at least witnessed -- that the human toll must be recognized as more than the initial death count and whatever insurance companies have declared lost.

Yet, a full accounting of the emotional toll can feel unattainable. As New Orleans federal judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle puts it: "For those who did not lose a loved one, a home, personal family keepsakes, photos, a business or other collateral losses, it's hard imagining the impact of our losses. Harder still is trying to express the emotional suffering in meaningful terms." In my experience, even those who can articulate their suffering may choose not to, afraid of re-traumatizing themselves or their loved ones.

Columbia University researchers have endeavored to tally some of the toll, at least for children, in their newly released report "Children as Bellwethers of Recovery: Dysfunctional Systems and the Effects of Parents, Households, and Neighborhoods." They find that 37% of Katrina children have had a clinical mental health diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or a behavioral disorder and that they are nearly five times as likely as a pre-Katrina cohort to exhibit serious emotional disturbance. Reading their conclusions, one simple statement says it all: "Children and youth are particularly vulnerable to the effects of disasters."

Indeed: children show us the damage, be it a catastrophe in the community, or a deep crisis within the home. Sometimes they show us with behavior. Sometimes they show us with their faces, especially if they have not had much opportunity to heal.

Which takes me back to Houston, post-Katrina. On September 9th, 2005, a group of us writers who taught for Writers in the Schools volunteered at the George R. Brown Convention Center. This wasn't the Superdome. This wasn't even the Astrodome. The cavernous shoebox of a building in downtown Houston was filled with evacuees, but it was as organized and orderly as could be. Later, I would interview shelter manager Lt. Col. Rick Noriega (and later U.S. Senate candidate) for my Katrina oral history project, so impressed as I was by the loving clockwork of his operations. Many people and organizations were volunteering in some capacity, and we were there to help the kids write about their experiences.

Upstairs we went, to a ballroom dedicated to children's activities. The room bustled with children and parents. They were black, brown and white. All were evacuees. Some played games, some worked with volunteers. Some looked adjusted, making the best of it. Some did not.

Jamal. This is the child whose face I can't forget. I didn't even work with him, just saw him with my friend, filmmaker Sharon Ferranti as she sat with him that late afternoon. This is what she would write of the experience:

He did not smile. He was not interested. It's just that there was nothing else to do. Jamal sat next to me on the floor of the George R. Brown Convention Center. I was there with other WITS writers to lead a writing workshop for the kids. We were having trouble drumming up participants, and one of the writers was telling a story to get their attention. A half a dozen little girls came right over. Around six or eight years old, they were more easily distracted by the promise of a "scary" story.

Jamal listened, as best he could. He was restless and rocked back and forth on his heels. He was African American and couldn't have been more than nine. He wore jeans, tennis shoes, a donated tee-shirt. There was nothing unusual about his appearance. He was wiry and strong. His face, however, stays with me. His face was aged. Noticeably. He had a look in his eyes that made him seem thirty-five. I kept looking over at him as the story wound to its end. It was anger mixed with fatigue. That is what filled his eyes and gave his face a disturbing maturity.

After the story, which he pronounced flatly "not scary," Jamal walked with me over to a round table we'd commandeered for our workshop. We'd brought blank notebooks, drawing paper, pens, and pencils. We thought we'd help them get started on a journal if they were interested. The little girls happily began to decorate their notebooks and describe their experiences to the other writers. Jamal did not smile. He was not interested. It's just that there was nothing else to do.

I asked him question after question to try to get him started. Was he from New Orleans? "Yes." Was he here with family? "Yes." Who was he here with? "His mother and little sister." Was it scary?... long pause... "Was what scary?"... (He still does not look at me. He never made eye contact with me the entire time we talked.)

The storm? Was the storm scary?

(he waited)

"No."

I was going to give up. I was prepared to fail. The room--the city--the entire hurricane Katrina thing--was so steeped in the impossible; what difference could one more failure possibly make?

Then he started to talk. He was not going to write; I could tell. So I grabbed a pen and opened his journal and took dictation.

"We were driving around and around. It was me and my mom and my little sister and my mom's boyfriend. We were driving around and around and then we went in a circle and my mom started to get mad. It was hot and she was yelling and he was yelling and we just kept driving around and around. And it was getting dark. I think we were lost. We finally made it to my grandma's and picked her up."

At this point, the chronology of his story becomes confused. I am not sure whether the next event happened that night or the next day or the following day. It did not matter to Jamal.

"They pointed a gun at my grandmother and told her to get on the bus. And she had a stroke."

Then he starts to cry. He doesn't know where his grandmother is. He doesn't know if she's alive. He doesn't cry long. When the few tears stop, he looks around the table. He sees the other kids are doing some drawing. He picks up some colored pencils. He doesn't smile. He is not interested. It's just that there's nothing else to do.

I still remember Jamal's face. I remember how I thought to myself that he looked like students I had worked with before. Boys in my Third Ward school, but also in Detroit schools. Stand apart boys. Boys that resisted my lessons, rejected my entreaties that they participate, no matter how thorough the lesson, no matter how playfully, or sternly I asked. Boys I'd pushed and pulled, until it was a tug-of-war, because I wouldn't take no for answer. Boys I sometimes turned away from as "manipulative" for having taking up so much of my time, and leaving no writing to show for it.

Then Sharon told us Jamal's story. I know we all felt heartache and rage at the same time. No boy or girl should have to live through that! Then I realized Jamal was teaching me something crucial. Hearing his story, I understood immediately why Jamal's eyes looked so dark and opaque, why his face felt closed like a door. I thought back to the "stubborn" boys and girls I'd worked with, and how so many of them looked like this. Now, I associated that look with those who had something precious and unreturnable snatched from their lives. Some of those kids had seen violent death. Some lived with violence, still. While they may not have endured Katrina specifically, they endured other kinds of home wreckage.

The Columbia University report shows that Katrina kids still need our help. They need it at 5x the rate of their peers. But their peers need it, too. We need systemic repair, but we must be on the look-out ourselves for those troubled and "trouble" kids, the ones who show us the effects of disaster on a daily basis. We should look for ways to offer some relief, or if possible, mentorship and guidance. Sharon did it by listening and recording a boy's story. What is it that you are gifted to do?