Friday, September 14, 2007

A Good Day to Check Our Smoke Alarms

A house down the street caught fire today. Charley, 6, walked in the back door and said calmly, "I don't mean to freak anyone out, but there is black smoke coming from down the street, and I think a house is on fire." Janey, 11, freaked out. Well, she didn't actually freak out, she just got that look on her face and buried her head in my shoulder. We looked out the window together. "It's too close, Mama. I want to move."

Janey is my worrier. She has always had a fear of disasters and accidents. If the front page of the newspaper shows photographs of an earthquake in South America, she wants to know how close that is to where we live. I show her our proximity to Peru on the wall map in the living room, and she can breathe a sigh of relief. It's hard for me to relate. Over the years, we have discovered that Janey's worries can be lessened when she is given factual information about the nature of her fears. I have learned that it's best for me to check in with her initially and remind her that when she's ready, I can give her some information to help educate her about whatever it is that is making her feel afraid. She usually takes her time, and wants to talk about it within 15 or 20 minutes.

As we watched the black smoke billow up into the sky, I realized that maybe we should be calling 911. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, we heard the sirens. Loads of them. Within seconds, our street was packed with fire engines, hook and ladders, ambulances, police cars and paramedic trucks. Macy and Charley wanted to walk out to the sidewalk, but Janey wasn't going anywhere. I agreed to stay with Janey while the other two walked out to the end of our driveway. Just then a friend pulled up and her kids came piling out of the car. "Fire, fire, your neighbor's house is on fire!" they shouted. The excitement was intense. Janey shifted a bit and wanted to venture outside. She stayed close, but didn't want to miss out on the excitement. That's the other thing about Janey, she doesn't want to miss a thing.

As we walked down the sidewalk, Janey indicated that she was ready for some information. I began by simply noting aloud what I was observing: scores of emergency workers going through the motions of their various tasks: unrolling hoses, unscrewing valves on fire hydrants, adjusting equipment, oxygen masks and gear. No one seemed frantic or distressed, they were simply doing their jobs. The ambulance sirens had stopped and the paramedics were leaning against their vehicles, obviously, no one was injured. "We are so lucky to live in a part of the world where we have these people in our community who are willing to do these jobs," I commented to Janey. "And look at all of this equipment." Thick, sturdy hoses that went down the street several blocks, medical equipment, chain saws, enormous attic fans, ladders that seemed to reach for the sky, fire proof clothing and oxygen tanks. Amazing. We watched them silently for several minutes. Janey began to relax and the questions began pouring out. "How do those hoses attach? Why are they cutting a hole in the roof? Why did the smoke turn white? Do you think Sarah's (another neighbor) dog was afraid when the sirens were approaching? With each question, Janey took a few steps closer to the scene. It didn't take long and were standing across the street from the fire and a few feet away from a very distressed looking woman, obviously one of the occupants.

No one had been home when the fire broke out. No people or animals were injured. Our friend Sarah's boyfriend had called 911 and began fighting the fire with a garden hose until the trucks arrived. The woman standing near us just watched the emergency workers in silence. Janey whispered, "Do you think she needs some new clothes?"

Back when I used to teach second and third grade, I used to stay up late on Sunday nights planning my lessons for the week. Often, our Social Studies curriculum would require that we do a unit study on our community. I would spend hours and days scheduling field trips and classroom visits attempting to create ways in which my students could learn about their immediate neighborhood. Fire fighters, police officers, postal workers, bakers, security guards, and city planners would parade in and out of our classroom explaining their jobs and answering questions. On my best teaching days, I could create a little mini model of our community within the four walls of my classroom. In choosing our path as unschoolers, and in choosing to keep my own children home from school, it is no longer necessary to plot and plan and scheme to re-create what we already experience every single day. We are living and breathing our community every time we set foot out that door. Most days, I have no idea what we will encounter when we set out, or stay in, for that matter. What I do know, is that it will be rich, and interesting, and full.

We sat on the curb and watched the fire fighters for a long time. Janey's fear subsided and she decided we wouldn't have to move away after all. She even commented that she might like to be a fire fighter someday. "Either that, or a movie star, or a store keeper. I can't decide." That's my girl. The workers were happy to answer our questions and handed out stickers to the kids. We found out how the hoses fit back into the trucks after they've been unrolled (it's a three or four person job). We also learned that each oxygen tank has a (very loud) internal alarm that indicates when it is running low. We learned that there were only 2 female fire fighters in the group of 15 or more. We learned more that afternoon about emergency workers in our town than I could have ever created in a second grade classroom. As we chatted with a fire fighter pushing air out of an empty fire hose, he reminded us, "It's a good day to check your smoke alarms." I nodded my head and told the kids we should do that as soon as we get home. "But Mom," Janey declared with a smile, "ours get checked once a week when you burn dinner." Ouch...she's right!

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