Thursday, September 18, 2003

Blackout Stories

To motivate the students about our study of electricity, I assigned a 2-3 paragraph story about their experiences during the blackout on August 14th. Students who were not in the US during the blackout were allowed to write about another time when they lost power, or about the overall importance of electricity in their lives. The stories they wrote were very revealing: while people in Manhattan drank beer and wine at restaurants and bars, hung out with friends, threw block parties, and generally reveled in the unexpected holiday, many of my students in the Bronx heard gunshots and witnessed robberies of local stores. To be fair, many of them also reported informal gatherings in front of apartment buildings, but the atmosphere in the South Bronx seems to have been more frightening than it was in Manhattan. I write this because during the blackout, as the radio reported that there was no increase in crime, I thought about my students - were they safe? I couldn't imagine things going so peacefully in a neighborhood where there are gang shoot-outs and robberies from time-to-time even with the streetlights on. For specific crime statistics, visit the 42nd Precinct and compare to the trendy Lower East Side (9th Precinct), or the family-oriented Upper West Side (20th Precinct).

Turns out that at least two of my students got stuck in elevators, several were on their way to Rye Playland, and one or two experienced medical emergencies in their families before the power came back on. A few wrote about frequent - but brief - blackouts experienced in the Dominican Republic or Bangladesh, where they have visited relatives. Another 2 or 3 commented that not being able to watch TV or play video games meant that they spent time talking or playing with their parents - and they appreciated that time.

Here are a few quotes from the homework files:

"There was a big problem with a few people on my block. A fight that involved knives and I had front row seats."

"What surprised me is that they always blame something on Osama bin Laden when they're not sure."

"I continued the day just like any other except that I was in camp. I got dirty in the mud slide after I got in the lake. ... Everything was going well until I felt like showering at exactly 4:00 pm. When an assistant told me the showers weren't working. What! I thought in my head. This can't be happening."

"That night of the blackout it was a shootout through the whole night, but by that time everyone was inside (that I know)."

"Good thing we had the Y2K warnings for the year 2000, or we wouldn't have propane lamps."

"I was surprised about not having electricity because that day was when I realized that the United States is really lucky to be able to use computers and all those electronics. ... I feel like the blackout changed me because now I don't turn on all the lights and I don't abuse the electricity because one day it could all go away and that's when you feel thankful for what you have."

By the way, I'm home early today because my bathroom is having a sink transplant, due to a nearly-fatal case of sewer gas. I did all my teaching in the morning, then left after lunch, but I still felt weird walking around my home neighborhood in mid-afternoon... sort of undercover or something.

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