This I Believe

Whitney - New Orleans, Louisiana
Entered on March 2, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: children
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Experiences Shape Our Vision

I believe that our experiences shape the way we look at life and art. That might sound self-evident, but this belief has hit home with me since I took on a volunteer creative writing teaching position in a New Orleans charter school, post-Hurricane Katrina.

I showed a class of fifth graders five photographs from the book The Family of Children, published in 1977. I asked my students to study the pictures and to choose one for the subject of a story. Then I posed these questions: What’s happening in the picture? What happened right before the shot was taken? What’s going to happen next?

One picture was of a gray-haired African American man in stained pants and muddy shoes. He sits on a wooden folding chair on top of a plank of wood. In his right arm, he holds a toddler who is wearing nothing but a poorly wrapped diaper. In his left arm, he cradles an infant who is struggling to put the nipple of a baby bottle into its mouth. The man looks as if he is talking to the toddler who is slipping from his arm. Behind them, you can see spray-painted black writing on a tent covering a structure. Two letters are crossed out.

Several of my writing students chose this photograph. They looked carefully at the man and the graffiti. “It’s a Hurricane Katrina picture,” they shouted.

“What happened to the man?” I asked.

“His house flooded, and he swam through the flood water with those babies,” one girl told me.

“He swam until he died,” another student said.

“No, he got saved from the water. A boat picked them up. Somebody took them to Houston. Then he died in the hospital.”

One boy read his story to the class. He wrote, ”The man lost his house in Hurricane Katrina. If I met that man, I’d give him money and food.”

I told my students that the photograph was published in a book thirty years ago.

“So it has to be a picture from Hurricane Betsy,” two kids said.

I did not tell them what I thought about the picture taken by photographer Jill Freedman. This was an exercise in descriptive writing. I didn’t want to block their creative process.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about their interpretation of this photograph. The image of a black man sitting in dirty clothes holding two partially dressed babies, behind him a structure with graffiti, meant HURRICANE VICTIM. If not of Hurricane Katrina, then of Hurricane Betsy.

I am not surprised by this interpretation. I believe that this hurricane will be the prism through which my students will always see their lives. I believe they will be sensitive to vulnerability. And many of them will respond to other disasters with compassion and empathy for the victims. I believe our experiences shape our interpretations and our vision.