Fourth grade students use poetry to heal from Hurricane Michael

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Hurricane Michael hit one year ago, but the memories of that day are still fresh in the minds of children.

Students learned how to heal through writing poetry about Hurricane Michael. (WJHG/WECP)

"I was huddled in a room with all of my family and all of my pets and we kept on hearing stuff slamming against the window and we didn't know what it was," said Patronis Elementary Student Chloe Gazagnaire.

Like everyone, the lives of local children were turned upside down.

"You still feel sad sometimes?," asked Katie Griffitts.

"Mhmm... because my entire bedroom's gone," said Patronis Elementary Student Samuel Gardner.

They missed school for more than a month. Getting back to the classroom brought them together with a new sense of normalcy.

"This picture is our first day back together when we came back together after being out for five weeks, this was our reunited picture," said Fourth Grade Teacher at Patronis Elementary Lori West, while pointing to a picture of her and her students.

The immediate focus wasn't on books and tests, it was on healing after so many children went through so much.

"I kind of felt blessed but not at the same time," said another student at Patronis, Trey Mitchell, about returning to school.

"Really, really sad, blessed that everyone was okay and that not a lot of people got hurt," added Patronis student Katarina Conjar.

"We were really sad, like, we didn't do anything the whole day we basically just visited each other," Gazagnaire added.

West saw how her students were hurting, which sparked an idea.

"We talked about what would be a way that they could express their emotions and their feelings through their words and what they came up with was absolutely beautiful," said West.

The words of children can be pretty powerful, Mrs. West turned an everyday assignment into a lesson in healing, challenging her children to share and strengthen each other through poetry.

Another student, Duncan Rivard, read his poem out loud, "This is the Storm of Sadness: Everything was perfect, everything was fair, but then came the storm of wind water and air. The storm came at noon and left just as soon, but our no longer perfect world will never be the same. Now, every roof is a roof of blue, and the storm of sadness has ruined things for me and you. But do not cry, do not fear, Panama City will once again be crystal clear, despite all of the bad things that have happened here."

Students wrote from the heart, pouring their emotions from Michael onto paper.

"It felt better because it's not so easy to say what you feel but it's easier to write what you feel," said student Addie Stokes about writing her poem.

"Like, you kind of had to think about it before, I had to rewrite mine like 100 times," added another student, Caroline Good.

They say it helped them heal in ways they didn't expect.

"This book helped me a lot to know that I'm not the only one who's feeling this way," said Patronis Elementary Student Rylie Nichols.

The poems were made into a book and published. The cover was drawn by one of the students.

"A lot of the pictures throughout here are actual pictures of their homes. I tried to make it as authentic as possible, so this is actually Jackie's backyard," said West, while pointing to a picture in the book.

Now, almost a year after writing their poems, students can look back at what they wrote and see how far they've come.

"We remember like what happened and how it made us stronger and how it made us better people, instead of remembering how it ruined our lives and how it ruined Panama City," said Rivard.

While they aren't forgetting what happened on October 10, 2018, they're ready to move forward with lessons learned from the past.

"I'm kind of glad because like we're building back up again but I'm scared that like another hurricane's going to come and like destroy what we already have," said student Hannah Bean.

"Sort of happy that it's over," said Betty Spivey.

"I'm happy that it's getting better and better," added Bryce Bloomfield.

"I kind of feel like it was meant for a good reason because it brought like the whole community together more," said another student Ellie Trepanier.

For teachers like Mrs. West, she also learned from her students, who used words to help heal and hope.

"They were firsthand account experience survivors of a category five hurricane, something that, at the time, no one else could say they had been through, so for them to give their first-hand account experience was just tremendous," said West.

The book's dedication is a reminder to everyone you're not alone in what you've been through over the past year, and it's dedicated to "All Hurricane Michael Survivors."

The book is available for purchase. If you would like to purchase it, please contact Lori West at westlw@bay.k12.fl.us.

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