It’s every teacher’s worst nightmare. It’s every parent’s greatest fear. It’s every classmate’s confused terror. A field trip is supposed to be a happy time, an occasion for lifelong happy memories, not a time of great pain and sorrow. Unfortunately sometimes a magical moment turns to horror before our very eyes.
This has been a difficult week for Texas. There has been flooding in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and right here in Houston. In a flash so many lives have been changed. If we were the lucky ones we only observed the events from afar but even that was difficult to handle. The stories and the photos from the Wimberley area have been difficult to view. Unsuspecting families gathered in the Hill Country over the Memorial Day weekend to enjoy one of the loveliest areas of our state. Little did they realize the danger that was lurking when the rains began to fall. At first they may have been merely irritated that their holiday plans were getting soggy but soon enough the heavens opened with a fury and sent such powerful storms that the waterways became raging mountains of water slamming against anything that lay within their path.
Houses were swept from their very foundations. People clung to trees and floated on debris in the raging waters. For one family the horror was devastating. What had been a welcome break from work and school suddenly became a real life scene out of a Hollywood disaster film. The house they had rented left the moorings of its foundation and began floating uncontrollably down the river. There were eight people inside including two small children. One of the women made an hysterical distress call to her sister. She was in a state of panic. She told her sibling that they were all inside the house but it was rumbling along in the rapidly moving river. She was was beside herself with fear. She begged her sister to pray. Later the house slammed into a bridge and split in half. Members of the family were separated. Thus far only the father has been found. The other seven have not been seen since Saturday. Even though there has been a continuous search for the missing at this point hope for a miracle has dimmed and most people quietly presume that they are dead.
Here in Houston a woman in her seventies was trying to get to work at a Kroger early this week when an historic storm unleashed its fury on the city. As she drove under a freeway her car instantly became submerged. She was unable to get out and swim for help. She died, one of many who had thought that it was just another week day night. The city awoke in the morning to a startling scene of historic destruction. Among those affected was a dear friend of mine who spent the entire night stuck on a freeway in a knot of stalled traffic with two hysterical young children as thunder and lightning lit up the skies for hours. My friend and her family were safe but the ordeal took its toll and by the end of the week she was in the hospital with pains in her chest.
Yesterday the sun finally came out in Houston. Most of the visible debris was gone. The city sighed with relief and began to consider the consequences of the long cleanup that lies ahead. It seemed to be a time for celebrating. Lots of citizens were out and about, enjoying the reprieve from the rain that has been our constant companion for weeks. I joined the party and everywhere that I went strangers asked if I had been okay in the storm. People recounted their own stories of that terrible night and spoke of praying for the missing, the dead, and those who had experienced damages and loss.
I marveled at the sincere compassion and generosity of the people of Texas as I learned of local businesses who had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help in the rebuilding. Mike and I went out to eat at Kenny and Ziggy’s because I had read that the owners would be giving a portion of profits to the residents of the Meyerland area who had borne the brunt of the storm. I learned of ongoing relief projects in San Antonio where citizens were collecting household items and clothing for those who had lost so much. I knew that we would all stand together and find ways to support each and every person who had suffered because of the rains. Then I learned of yet another great tragedy that had unfolded unbeknownst to me while I had been enjoying a lovely day.
A group of twenty students from KIPP Voyage Middle School had traveled to Galveston for a much deserved day of relaxation and fun. Two teachers accompanied the young sixth graders who ranged in age from eleven to twelve, the same ages as four of my grandchildren. One of the teachers was a trained lifeguard. Both of them agreed to watch the girls as they frolicked in the water of the Gulf of Mexico. They wisely only allowed five at a time to play in the surf and they admonished the students to stay together. It seemed to be a reliable plan but sometimes Mother Nature has a way of surprising even the most seasoned swimmer.
Two of the girls who had been splashing and riding the waves on a sandbar seemed to be in trouble. One of the teachers went out to assist them in coming back to the safety of the shore. Two more quickly followed. The fifth girl, Samira Carlon, seemed to just disappear. The teachers called for help and rescue teams converged on the beach. The effort was dramatic with other beach goers helping in the search. A helicopter flew overhead. Samira’s parents were contacted and they rushed to the scene hoping against hope that their little girl would be found unharmed. The efforts continued until it grew too dark to see.
Back at home the KIPP family spread the word that one of their own was in trouble. They began to pray and to express their concern. The KIPP Charter schools and the people who work and learn in them are very special. The slogan, “One team, one family,” is more than just words. Students are known as KIPPsters and faculty members are Big KIPPsters. Once one is a KIPPster he/she is always a KIPPster. Students, teachers, and parents form strong bonds that don’t end when the child graduates. Every KIPPster knows how much hard work goes into each and every day of the school year. It is a special environment and when one member is in trouble KIPPsters respond with giving hearts.
KIPP Voyage is the only all girls school in the KIPP Houston charter system. Located in north Houston near Tidwell it serves children from the fifth to the eighth grade. Students have long school days and a rigorous curriculum. In the course of their education they become intensely close to one another and to the adults who are guiding them. Their days are filled from dawn until bedtime with studying and athletic programs. They have little time for frivolous diversions from August through May. When the end of the school year arrives they heave a sigh of relieve but not for too long. Even in the summer they will have reading assignments and maybe even some mathematics to do. They are climbing a mountain of learning and at times the journey is difficult but for those who go on to graduate from high school and then college it is worth all of the effort. KIPP alum return to the schools to encourage the younger students and to assure them that they will one day be very glad that they had the opportunity to attend classes at one of the KIPP campuses.
It is a tradition in KIPP schools to reward the students who have labored all year long with trips or excursions. They earn “golden tickets” if they have worked hard and been nice. Samira Carlon was one of those students who deserved a reward for all of her efforts. She and her classmates and her teachers could not have known when they stepped onto the bus to travel to Galveston yesterday that such a sad story would unfold. Today the entire KIPP nation here in Houston and across the United States is saddened. Our hearts hope against all hope that this will end well but our heads tell us that things do not look good. Today we all pray for Samira, her family, her classmates, and her teachers. May God comfort and watch over them as they try to comprehend this terrible accident.