by Carisma Bishop '15
I was born and raised in a place where hurricanes happen, a place where both the people and the land are resilient. In 1993, four years after the largest hurricane my island of St. Croix had ever seen—a hurricane so devastating that the imprint it left resonated through my childhood—I was born in a makeshift hospital while the old one still lay in ruins. I grew up listening to stories of my cousins being sent to attend school in the mainland while my aunts and uncles tried to rebuild their homes. Each hurricane that followed was compared to the reigning Hugo. Not even Hurricane Marilyn of 1995—which blew our roof off and caused my family of six to live in a two-bedroom apartment for the next 10 years—could be compared to the damage that was left behind after Hurricane Hugo. That is, until September 2017.
Hurricane Maria was heading straight for my small island as a Category 5, and I was scared. I wasn’t scared to live without power for months. I wasn’t scared that our house might be damaged. I was scared that my 13 second-graders might not have a classroom to return to. It had only been a month since I moved back home, and my dream to teach on the island that shaped me was being seriously threatened.
I spent Monday, Sept. 18, packing up my classroom for the second time. Just days earlier, Hurricane Irma blew past the island. Little damage was done, but old memories of previous hurricanes resurfaced, leaving a heightened energy that could be felt throughout the community. As I covered desks in plastic, rolled up carpets and boxed books, my dad shuttered our windows and fueled the generator, while my mom stocked up on canned food and water at the grocery store. Whether we liked it or not, Maria was coming and we had to prepare for the worst.
By the night of Sept. 19, the storm was at full force. My parents and I hunkered down with our three dogs on the first floor of the house my dad built. For hours, it felt like we were under attack: Shutters rattled, tree branches cracked, rain pelted the roof. I found myself holding my breath during long gusts of wind. I thought if I wasn’t breathing during the worst parts, they might subside faster, like when you’re little and you think closing your eyes somehow makes you invisible.
In the months that followed the storm, the ghost of Maria could be seen and felt in every nook and cranny of the island. In one fell swoop, she had rearranged our priorities and created a new normal—a world where blue tarps were a sign of both destruction and hope, the hum of generators became a lullaby and the lack of connection to the outside world introduced a new level of isolation to the island.
I was lucky beyond measure, though. Lucky because my house and my school were still standing. Lucky because I was not one of the staff members to be let go when enrollment dropped. Lucky because I had my parents by my side. And lucky because my Dickinson family didn’t allow the isolation to consume me. The tight-knit group of friends I made those four years remain my closest friends. During the moments when I was able to find a pocket of cell service or a hot spot of Wi-Fi, they were there to talk, to listen, to help me escape reality for a moment.
After August 2011, when Hurricane Irene caused me to be late to Orientation, I was always that island girl whom hurricanes seemed to follow. Seven years later, I am still that girl, but now I have Dickinson following me as well. On Monday, Oct. 30, I received a care package from my sophomore year roommate. That gesture left an imprint on me as large as Hurricane Maria herself. Growing up, I had always believed that damaged homes built strong people. Now I know that strong friendships also build strong people.
Carisma Bishop ’15 is a second-grade teacher at Good Hope Country Day School in St. Croix. After graduating from Dickinson, she moved to Baltimore to begin her teaching career and spent two years juggling her Teach for America placement and courses at Johns Hopkins University. After earning her master’s in education, she followed her dream of returning to her island home to educate the next generation of hurricane survivors.
Published August 3, 2018