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: Melissa Bailey (by Alondra Adame)
Melissa Bailey believes everything happens for a reason, especially the Camp Fire. “It was ironic,” she chuckled as she recalled receiving an email the night before the fire. That email warned her that classes might be cancelled due to a strong wind advisory in the Paradise area. She recalled taking a screenshot of the email on her phone and sending it to her boyfriend, along with a photo of the fire she could see in the distance as she drove from Chico to Paradise. In fact, she wasn’t even concerned about the small fire she could barely see in the distance on her typical morning drive to Paradise Elementary School, a drive she knows that she’ll never be able to take again. Her main concern that day was a parent-teacher conference.
As I listened to Melissa Bailey’s story, much of it sounded like a series of unfortunate and unlikely coincidences. However, she still had a warm smile on her face. Melissa was surrounded by a friendly air as she spoke to me about her experiences, but she had a no-nonsense manner of speaking that instantly grabbed my attention. As someone who knows how difficult it can be to command respect and attention from a classroom, I was amazed to find out that this was only her third year of teaching second grade.
“That morning was weird because I was trying to do the parent-teacher conference and during the school announcements they were like ‘everyone needs to be inside; it’s too smoky’ and I was like ‘okay, then we’ll be having indoor recess and have them work on the Chromebooks.’ I tried to focus on the kids because if I’m not focused, then nobody is going to be paying attention. Then [the school] came over the loudspeaker around 8:30 when I was reading to them and said ‘teachers, it’s time to start calling parents, kids are going home,’ which made me go, ‘oh, it must be REALLY smoky then,’ still thinking the fire was far away and not even imagining that it was coming towards us so fast.” Melissa explained to me that parents began arriving so fast that she couldn’t get all of them to sign out their children before rushing out back to the roads.
Eventually, it was herself and two of her students, along with two of her coworkers, in a room near the office. She questioned if they should begin taking the children in their cars to leave, but was told that it would be “a liability issue until an official evacuation is given” and there would be a bus from Ponderosa Elementary School that would bring down all of their students to take them all together down to Chico. Later on, someone came in to yell at the remaining students and staff to leave. It turned out that the Ponderosa bus wasn’t coming and they had already left to head straight to Chico. Melissa explained that when she rushed the children outside, the view looked “like something out of an apocalypse movie” complete with a raging fire and heavy black smoke.
“Two of my coworkers realized that they had no gas in their cars so I told them to come with me and my two students.” She shrugged, and I realized exactly how significant this decision was for the lives of her passengers: “If I had left, knowing I have five extra spaces in my car, I would have hated myself forever.” I asked her if she was worried at all about breaking any type of school protocol and she shook her head: “I know I did the right thing; I was there for a reason,” and her boyfriend agreed. He told her, once she was safe after driving to his apartment in Chico and her students had been picked up by their parents, that if classes had actually been cancelled due to the wind advisory then some of the children might have been at home with no one to save them: their parents might have been at work or stuck in the impossible traffic that piled up during the chaos.
Melissa Bailey saved lives: it is as simple and incredible as that.
A few days after the Camp Fire began, Melissa finally connected with her students at CalSkate in Chico, California, and one of the first things her students told her was, “Miss Bailey, I’m so sorry about the Bailey Beehive.” The Bailey Beehive was the name of their 2nd grade classroom and the students were acutely aware of how much love and effort Melissa had poured into it. It occurred to Melissa, who lives outside of Paradise, that her students not only lost their school but the places where they had made their childhood memories, their homes, their parks, their community, and even some of their family members. “Some kids can’t even hear the word ‘Paradise’ without losing it. Others say they just want to go back home. There are some students who have experienced trauma before the fire but now everyone feels the trauma of the event,” she sighed. She explained to me that she now uses emotion charts and daily goals for each student so she can see where they are emotionally and meet them halfway.
I asked Melissa what she wants people to know after going through what she experienced. She wants to remind people that there is still work to be done. “We are not okay even though we have a space,” which refers to the fact that her second grade class currently resides at Bird Street School in Oroville. She explained that the room where she conducts her classes is smaller than everyone is used to and shows me a photo on her phone of her “desk,” which consists of a small wooden table filled with papers and boxes of pencils, pens, crayons, and markers.
As my time with Melissa came to a close, I asked her if she ever regretted becoming a teacher. To my surprise, she admitted that she was beginning to doubt her position as a teacher before the Camp Fire happened and was considering looking for a different job, but now she is steadfast in her decision to teach. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop teaching now; I think I became a teacher for a reason,” and before she left, she gave me a hug filled with what I can only describe as genuine human kindness.
Alondra Adame is an undergraduate student at Chico State. She is currently applying for her M.A. in English at Chico State as well, hoping to eventually write a few books and read even more. A few topics she loves to speak and write about are mental health, feminism, LGBTQ+ issues, Chicanx culture, and the bittersweet events that have guided her life. Outside of school, she enjoys spending time with her dog, Buu and playing video games with compelling stories.