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. 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: Cindy Carlson (by Andrew Perez)
Cindy Carlson stood in the cafeteria at Paradise Intermediate with three of her special education students as fire raged a couple hundred yards away, tearing through the blissful town of Paradise. Nearly half of the school’s students did not show that day but some ninety sixth, seventh, and eighth graders remained at the school, waiting for parents, grandparents, and family to rescue them. With the Camp Fire quickly approaching the school, it became obvious that no one was coming for them.
“When do we leave?” –the thought that was on every person’s mind during this moment. With no way to transport the remaining students, their best hope was to dampen pieces of cloth to cover their mouths and wait out the fire in a nearby field. Cindy made eye contact with fellow teacher Erica Blaschke. Could this really be their best option? Were they really going to surrender their lives to chance?
When I sat down with Cindy in a classroom at Chico State University to interview her about her experience in the Camp Fire, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In fact, I felt totally intimidated to talk about such a tragic event.
However, I quickly learned how wonderful of a person Cindy Carlson is. Cindy has been a special education teacher for the past forty years with stints at the elementary, middle school, and university levels. From 1978 to 1993, she called Paradise home. It was here that her children spent most of their childhoods, where they had grown, learned, and played. It was here that she had established a career as an educator. In 1993 she moved to the city of Seattle and returned to the city of Chico in 1998, where she worked as an advisor in the credential program and as a professor in special education at CSU, Chico. Two years ago, she returned to Paradise as a severe special education teacher at Paradise Intermediate. Needless to say, she has a deep passion for teaching.
The majority of our hour and half conversation revolved around what had happened on November 8th, the day the Camp Fire erupted. Cindy showed me pictures of what the town looked like at 9:30 in the morning. They looked more like pictures taken at 9:30 at night, as everything within sight was blanketed by darkness. She described the events as they truly were, “intense.”
Just as all hope appeared lost, Valerie Rolph burst into the cafeteria yelling that “help was on [its] way!” Cindy explained that she would never forget that moment, as she was overwhelmed with joy and excitement. Within minutes, local Sheriffs stormed the building and began directing students and teachers alike to safety. Cindy was asked to fill her vehicle with students and get to Chico. She quickly made her way to her classroom to retrieve her keys. On her way back to the students, she paused to send a text message to her daughter: “If I die today, just know that l love you.”
Luckily, Cindy was able to get out of Paradise with relatively no problems. She evacuated the town by way of Neal Road some fifteen minutes before it was closed due to the fire. She rescued three students and one teacher’s aide.
Cindy’s home in California Park is located on the east side of Chico and was also in danger of the fire reaching it. Thankfully, it was not damaged in any way. However, she did leave town in order to reunite with her own children, now adults.
Through our interview, I was inspired by how much Cindy cares for her students. She expressed guilt for not being able to save more, though she deserves the utmost praise in my opinion. She spent nearly all of the next day preparing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for one of her students before she left town. Even after such a stressful, tragic event, Cindy was still in teacher mode, planning and working for her students.
Today, Cindy and rest of Paradise Intermediate are holding class in the old Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) store in Chico. Many students have left to other states. Cindy’s own special education students are stretched out over four different states. Classrooms are literally in store aisles with minimal seating and classroom materials. Somehow, these teachers are showing resilience and passion in the wake of total destruction.
I think about that day and wonder if I could keep myself together in a moment so intense. I’m amazed that not one student lost their life. That’s an absolute miracle. If it weren’t for the school faculty members that stayed behind that day, that may not have been the case. Cindy Carlson is more than just a teacher. She is a hero.
Andrew Perez is an English Education major in his fifth year at Chico State. He plans on graduating this spring and will return to Chico State in the fall to complete the credential program. That being said, he wants to teach high school English and coach varsity basketball. He is also a Creative Writing minor and enjoys writing both poetry and fiction. Topics that he enjoys reading and writing about include small town living, racism, classism, and what it means to be a minority in America today. Outside of school, his hobbies include playing basketball, baseball, and video games, and coaching in his hometown of Biggs, California.