In late January, twenty-five local teachers visited Chico State to speak with our most nascent educators, graduating seniors who are in their final course work before entering the credential program and becoming teachers themselves. The veteran teachers, all survivors of the Camp Fire, generously shared, mentored, and gave insights to our newest educators and helped us understand what it means to teach, particularly what it means to teach in times of trauma. Today begins our series of Teacher Stories. The stories are written by Chico State students from the interviews they did with these awesome teachers. We are grateful to the educators who are sharing their tales of teaching in a time of recovery from the fires. We hope these stories will help our communities near and far understand the incredible work that is done by students and teachers in our local schools.

Teacher Stories: Erica Blaschke (by Hannah Davies)

“I don’t think we realized the extent.” This thought, spoken to me by an incredible teacher on the evening of January 31st, is a realization I found myself having over and over in the weeks following the fire in November that ravaged Paradise, Concow, Magalia, and many other small communities that surround Paradise. The teacher is Erica Blaschke, a 7th grade English and Technology teacher from Paradise Intermediate School with over 20 years of experience and an indomitable sense of humor under her belt. You would need a great sense of humor to teach middle school, which Mrs. Blaschke describes as “a little crazy, but never boring.”

I had the pleasure of speaking to Mrs. Blaschke that Thursday evening over pizza as a part of the capstone course for English Education majors at Chico State, and I went into it with little idea of what to expect. What I got out of it gave me a whole new perspective, not only on the sustaining effects of the Campfire, but on what it means to be a teacher.

Erica and fellow teacher Sherry Swenson in their new “classroom,” aisle 14, at OSH. (Photo from Erica Blaschke)

Erica Blaschke began the morning of the fire the same as any other. She left her home in Chico and drove up Skyway, noting the smoke that she believed was coming from Highway 32. She had no inkling of the severity of the situation until just before school began: “We drove up and we were looking at it and…I remember we were eating tomatoes–one of my coworkers brought fresh tomatoes– and then one of my coworkers texted us that she was getting evacuated.” Soon the whole school was abuzz with nervousness. The sheriff’s office was called, and the school was given notice to begin evacuation. The grades were split up–sixth in the cafeteria, seventh in the gym, and the students began calling their parents for pick up. “Embers were falling that were really big…it was dark, it was like night and it was 9:00 in the morning.” By the time evacuation became an immediate necessity, only around 50 students remained. They were loaded up into the cars of the teachers, and left. Mrs. Blaschke took three students, a fellow teacher who didn’t have enough gas to get out, grabbed her laptop, put her food in the fridge, and they took off down the hill. “I was very lucky. I came out the top of Skyway and we turned and there were 30 foot tall flames… and we drove down the up, and that was crazy.” One of the teachers told everyone to meet at the fairgrounds, who were not prepared for the influx of people. “The fairgrounds had no clue, didn’t want to open up…two teachers went over and it was really cold…they let us into a building.” They were at the fairgrounds for hours before the Mormon church invited them in. The whole of the town was left wondering where to begin picking up the pieces.

For the teachers and other educators, the first order of business was checking in on the students: “we spent the first two weeks just on the phone… we went to one of our coworkers homes because doing it by ourselves was just hard.” They each picked a room and began calling. The conversations weren’t short, said Blaschke, and they couldn’t be. Everyone needed to tell their story, and teachers are often a beacon of safety. Many of her students apologized–mostly jokingly–for losing their books in the fire. By the time December 2nd rolled around, the teachers weren’t sure what the situation would be. Elementary schools worked out of Durham and Oroville schools, and Paradise High School and Paradise Intermediate were moved to the mall for online schooling. “We had no clue how many were going to show up…we didn’t know if we were going to have 50 or 100; we ended up having about 200.” Two hundred middle schoolers, with no real classrooms, were all signed up for an e-learning program: one Mrs. Blaschke (who had just finished training in the program before the fire) knew would be hard for many of the students. By the end of their time in the mall in December, it had become a bit of a comfort for everyone to be together. Mrs. Blaschke recalled all the community groups in Chico who reached out to give the kids places to go for field trips: “We took them on a lot of field trip. We learned how to take the B-line bus at the mall.” The Gateway Museum, Krispy Kreme, Round Table, and Bidwell Mansion all opened their doors to these displaced students. These trips, Blaschke says, have been a lifesaver.

Teaching in aisle 14

After winter break, the time at the mall was over for the middle schoolers. But then the problem became clear–no one had any idea what to do with the remaining 160 students. “It’s been a challenge; they couldn’t find us a place.” The elementary students stayed in their new homes, the high school found their place in the airport, and the charter schools, some of which had outside funding, managed to get set up in churches and portables. Eventually, the middle school was placed at Orchard Supply Hardware, or OSH as it is more commonly known. “Nobody was there to help us move…we moved shelving around.” It was clearly a harrowing time, trying to prep for how to teach in a hardware store with no furniture, no supplies, minimal electricity, and as a particular struggle for Mrs. Blaschke’s technology class, no wifi (to this day they are working off hotspots). Eventually, the students began using the shelves as desks as the teachers split up isles by grades and subjects. Blaschke and her teaching partner, Sherry Swenson, joked that they were “two co-pilots with a dream” as they conducted classes in aisle 14, the students in two rows down the aisle.

Students and teachers create desks from shelves in aisle 14. (Photo by Erica Blaschke)

In her blog post titled “Attention Shoppers: English Class on Aisle 14,” on her blog Learning Without Walls, Blaschke says, “Initially, I was very frustrated that our staff was expected to make a hardware store into a school by ourselves. We didn’t have desks, curriculum, wifi, and even electrical outlets were scarce. I now realize that relocating almost an entire school district after a fire is extremely difficult, especially when the rest of the town has been displaced too. I’m ready to move forward, to embrace the adventure, and to teach our kids on this crazy journey.”

Blaschke says the outreach from the community has been amazing, specifically the parents and community groups who have reached out one on one, and through sites like Color a Classroom with Love. “Paradise people are donating to Paradise schools…these are people that lost their houses.” Blaschke also has received a ton of support as an English teacher from citizens, emerging young adult authors who are sending early reader copies of their books: Chris Tebbetts of Middle School: the Worst Years of Your Life fame (who not only donated books, but also offered to skype with the kids) and one particularly open hearted librarian in Indianapolis who asked for a list of books that were wanted and fulfilled the rest of the needed book list– combined, the school has amassed somewhere around 1,000 books. Blaschke says, “They may not have wifi where they are, but they can read a book anywhere.” She also says the focus of the class has shifted, less on analysis and strict curriculum, and more on the escapism a good book or project can bring; “We’re just doing some creative writing because we just need to escape some reality.” More than anything, Blaschke says what she and the students need are opportunities and moral support. “We’re at the point now where we’ve got a lot of stuff…they don’t have any place to put things.” Right now, school is a necessary space for students to be together and find a new normal as their lives begin to settle. “It’s been too much in a short amount of time.”

There are many takeaways from the fire, and thousands of people whose lives have been forever changed. For these students, what they need are for people to reach out, give them new ways to look at the world and new experiences. They need their friends, their teachers, and a good book. They need an escape, and they need for someone to remember they’re there. Middle school is hard for everyone, even without a disaster. The forgotten middle child grades of the school system can’t be allowed to slip through the cracks, and while they were for a while, the love is starting to show through. “We laugh a lot because you have to… it just makes you realize everyone’s human.”

HannahDHannah Davies is a Theater Arts and English Education major at Chico State. More of a reader than a writer, she is planning on entering Chico State’s credential program this coming fall. She hopes to make her classrooms, both English and Theater, into a space students can go to where they can make a home and explore themselves, just as her Theater teacher did for her. In her free time you will find Hannah reading novels in her room, surfing Netflix with her roommate, or playing board games with her friends.