Sometimes it takes a tragedy

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As the unsettling sifting of the ashes of the Ghost Ship fire drew to a close Wednesday, three blocks away at St. Elizabeth Elementary School, sixth-grade teacher Adrianna Alvarez led students in a prayer assembly. The stillness of the gathering of 260 students and their teachers contrasted sharply with the media-frenzied, traffic-clogged streets and the persistent whir of helicopters over the neighborhood.

Following a spirited singing of Lean on Me, Alvarez alternated with Principal Deline Easterday in reading the names of the victims, reciting each person’s age and hometown. Each name was inscribed on cut-outs of monarch butterflies — traditional symbols of the life/death cycle. Along with student-made prayer cards, the butterfly cut-outs were laminated to withstand the elements.
The memorial closed with a half dozen students reading the prayers they had composed, expressing sorrow for the victims and their families and hope for the future.
“The Ghost Ship artist space was considered beautiful,” said Alvarez. “It was like an art gallery. People also lived there.”

Alvarez, who is also an artist, lives nearby as does 80 percent of the student body of the 123-year-old school in the heart of the Fruitvale district. A childhood friend of Alvarez lost her partner, a musician, in the fire.

“She is hurting,” she told me later in her classroom where we met with fifth-grade teacher Nisa Orozco, another part-time artist, and sixth grader Aiden Higuera. “Friends from diverse artistic backgrounds are all hurting very much.”

Higuera, 11, recalled the fear that the fire would spread to his home two blocks away. “But when I started making the butterflies this week with my classmates,” he said, “I felt pretty good that we were honoring all those people who lost their lives.”

“It’s difficult explaining such tragedy to kids,” Alvarez said. “We felt that the best way to bring students together was to talk about their feelings and then write them down in prayers and bring those messages to the community.”

She pointed to the Dia de los Muertos altar in the corner. “We always try to make sure that students are conscious of what’s going on in the community and of people who have contributed, like our firefighters and first responders,” she said.
Referring to the number of warehouse/artist collectives along the freeway from East Oakland to West Oakland, Orozco noted that finding living space is a common issue among longtime residents, including teachers.

“Many people are making do with what’s available,” she said. “And a lot aren’t regulated.”

“It’s a really sensitive subject,” she continued. “You have to make sure you’re respecting the needs of people and their space but also make sure that their living conditions aren’t going to lead to a tragedy.”

Alvarez suggested that the city look into providing low-income housing for artists.

“Oakland is so creatively diverse and has been a hub for the arts for so long,” she said. “It comes down to accessibility, especially for marginalized communities in this time of gentrification. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy.”

In the next morning’s steady drizzle, some 70 fifth- and sixth-grade students walked respectfully along Fruitvale Avenue to the makeshift memorial at the corner of International Boulevard. By then, the media stage at 31st Avenue, where fire department and city officials briefed the press, had been taken down. The busy thoroughfare again bustled with traffic.

Students quietly strung the butterflies and prayer cards along the short fence at the corner, setting down candles to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Higuera seemed at ease. “The honoring part has been taken care of,” he said. “I feel like we still have to take care of how the fire started so that fires like this never happen again.”

St. Elizabeth Elementary School’s December Dollar Day fund raiser will go to the loved ones of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire.


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Bill Joyce is a retired Berkeley teacher and 2016 alumnus of Oakland Voices.

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