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Resilience takes commitment
Bebyion showed me how to survive catastrophic situations through joy and play.
On my first shift as a mental health volunteer in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi Red Cross shelter two weeks after Hurricane Katrina had ravished the Gulf Coast, I could almost taste the angst permeating the air. The Forrest County Multi-Purpose Center, typically reserved for animal shows, concerts, and other forms of raucous entertainment, now served as an emergency shelter for hundreds of people, desperation emanating from their dull, empty eyes, haggard expressions, and slow, mechanical movements.
A few families sat at portable picnic tables in the open area at the front of the arena eating food provided by the National Guard. Others rummaged through mountains of donated clothes. Still others lay motionless on folding metal cots crowded into the stands surrounding the arena. A lucky few camped on the arena floor itself, putting up tents to claim a little privacy in this bubbling, boiling cauldron of humanity.
Some children sat quietly with their parents, playing games with siblings, or absorbed in a book they’d rescued from the disheveled play area. Others wandered in groups of twos or threes as if they were the last people left on Earth looking for signs of life.
And then there were the explorers, a group of ten or so children who had claimed the entire 120,000 square-foot arena as their new playground. Ranging in age from four to fourteen, they ran, screamed, danced, and chased each other around the arena floor, up the stairs to the stands, around the upper levels, and back down again. Many of the parents, overwhelmed by the daunting reality they now faced, let the children run unsupervised. Compared to what they’d been through, this seemed like a relatively safe environment. These children took optimal advantage of their freedom.
After observing them for a few minutes, it became obvious who the ringleader was. She looked to be about 10 years old. I saw her order other kids, some half her age, some much older, to stand here, run there, say this, do whatever was needed next in the game she’d invented. A girl of slight build, her earth-colored arms and legs were perfectly proportioned to her tiny torso. Her tight corn rows pulled her hair back off her strong, angular face. Thick black eyebrows accentuated her eyes, dark ovals swimming in a sea of white that exactly matched her t-shirt emblazoned with the word “SPOILED” in big block letters. Whether it was her commanding voice, her unabashed fervor, or her clear sense of purpose, none of the other children challenged her authority.
Eventually, I screwed up my courage and walked into the midst of the action. She came right over, put out her hand, and said in her loudest outside voice, “Hello, my name is Bebyion. What’s your name?”
After she had properly introduced me to the other children, I asked Bebyion what they were playing.
“Oh, we’re just making up stuff,” she said. And with that she was off again, until, that is, she noticed my camera. Before I had arrived for my first shift, I had heard from other volunteers that many of the residents had lost all their photographs in the storm. I decided to bring my digital camera and portable photo printer so I could offer parents a family photo.
When Bebyion noticed it, she insisted on having her picture taken. Thus began a long photo session of various configurations of children posing for the camera with Bebyion in the midst of it all. In fact, I found it hard to take a photo that Bebyion was not in. “Take mine, take mine,” a child would shout, and no sooner had I focused the camera on them when Bebyion would rush over, put her arms around the child, and smile her ingratiating smile.
After each shot, the children would grab for the camera to see their faces on the digital screen. But no child was more demanding about it than Bebyion. On one such attempt to grab the camera, she saw the video icon.
“You can take movies with this?” she asked excitedly.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Take a video of me,” she commanded.
Realizing that once I started videoing her, she would not want to stop, I told her that it was getting late, and that maybe we could do that tomorrow. Surprisingly, she accepted my response and didn’t push me any further. Little did I know the idea this sparked in Bebyion’s imaginative brain.
No sooner had I walked in the door the next day when she accosted me.
“Come on and bring your camera,” she shouted, as she grabbed me by the hand and pulled me in the direction of the arena floor.
“Waaaait a minute,” I said as I pulled back. “I‘ve got to check in, make sure nobody needs anything. I’ll meet you down there.”
Bebyion would not let me go. She walked with me to the mental health tables, never releasing my hand. Assessing that everything was as quiet as could be expected, I smiled and said to my colleagues, “I’ll be with the kids. Bebyion obviously has plans for me. Let me know if you need me for anything.”
“So what’s this all about?” I asked Bebyion as we walked down the stairs.
“We’ve been rehearsing. I want you to take a movie of us,” she replied matter-of-factly.
For the next three hours and for several days to follow, Bebyion became the self-appointed writer, director, and star performer in a variety of one-scene dramatic and musical productions. From “Wedding Invitation” to “Scary Movie,” Bebyion made sure each child knew their lines, where to stand, and what to do, which much of the time meant stepping aside to watch her perform. My job, of course, was to film it all and then play it back so she could watch herself on the tiny digital screen–over and over again.
By the third day, I began to hear grumbling from some of the other kids. “I don’t like Bebyion. She’s always bossing us around,” Tasha said to me in confidence.
“Well, why do you play with her, then?” I asked.
“She’s fun,” Tasha replied with a demure smile.
And so became the refrain I’d hear repeatedly from children who made up Bebyion’s entourage. Annoyed by her commands but captivated by her charm, they found themselves, like me, unable to pull themselves away. She had us all in her spell and wasn’t about to let us go.
I sensed, however, that these children would be forced to stay in this shelter for at least another week, and would soon grow tired of Bebyion’s absolute autocracy. Overthrow seemed inevitable and, cramped inside this tinder box of emotion, it would not be pretty. So, as we walked together back to her cot one night just after lights out, I said, “Bebyion, you’re a natural leader. All the kids follow you around to see what you’re going to do next. But you know, they’re getting tired of being ordered around. A good leader doesn’t tell people what to do but finds ways to inspire them. Maybe you could listen to the ideas of the other children and incorporate some of their ideas into what you do. It might make them like you even more.”
I had no idea if she was listening, or if she even cared. She never said a word as I deposited her at her cot and said goodnight.
The next day, peace had descended on the shelter, at least as far as these children were concerned. Bebyion was still in charge but, incredibly, she was asking the other children what they wanted to play. And she was listening to them! I watched, mesmerized. The volume of the entire arena had come down by at least 100 decibels and the children could speak without shouting. Of course, orders would still cross Bebyion’s lips on occasion – but her overall demeanor was one of collaboration.
As I turned to go work with other families, Bebyion caught my eye and with a wry smile, nodded her head ever so slightly, as if to say, “See, I’m doing what you said.” I smiled and nodded back.
On the first day of school, she displayed her same take-charge spirit. I greeted Bebyion when she got off the bus in front of the shelter, letting her know that her mom was meeting with FEMA about a trailer. “OK, I’m going to go do my homework,” she said.
I walked her back to the area her family had carved out for themselves. Bebyion sat on her cot, took out her books and notebook, and without another word, began working. Once I saw that she had settled in, I told her where she could find me if she needed anything and left her to her work.
An hour later, I circled back and saw that her mother was lying on the cot next to her. She called out to me, “Can you come help Bebyion with her math problems?”
I asked Bebyion if she wanted my help. She scooted over so I could sit down. For the next hour and half, we worked together on a seemingly endless sheet of five-digit multiplication problems. 23567 x 45376, 67567 x 43235, and on and on they went. I was ready to throw in the towel after the first five, but Bebyion kept plugging away.
Later that same evening, just after lights out, I walked by Bebyion’s cot and saw her sitting up with a book and a small flashlight. “What are you doing?” I whispered.
“I forgot I had a social studies chapter to read. I better get that done before I go to sleep,” she whispered back.
“Don’t stay up too late,” I said as I walked by, impressed by her tenacity and drive. How did a child find a way to put order in her life in a hurricane shelter, of all places?
I later learned that this hurricane was not Bebyion’s first experience with chaos. She and her sister had different fathers and neither knew who their father was. Before living in a small apartment torn apart by Katrina, they lived with Bebyion’s grandmother in a house she described as “kind of crazy.” Hurricane Katrina was just the latest storm she’d weathered.
Shortly after returning to school, Bebyion, her sister, and her mom packed up their meager possessions. I helped them carry their things and load them into her mom’s boyfriend’s car.
Bebyion hugged me as she crawled into the backseat, moving stuff out of the way to make room for herself. I handed her a pile of clothes to hold in her lap.
“Keep up your schoolwork,” I said, fighting back tears.
“I will,” she replied.
And with that, the car drove off.
Though only 10, Bebyion made order amid chaos by taking charge of her environment, opening herself to new ideas, and being eager to learn. She demonstrated that people, even children, can rise out of bedlam, and that joy, play, and a commitment to goals, serve an important part in developing resilience. These were lessons I had never encountered in the same way before, and they gave me a perspective on how people can survive overwhelming circumstances.
Today, with two kids of her own, Bebyion works in information technology for a major corporation. Though we’ve lost touch over the years, I smiled when I saw the online moniker she’s adopted: “SoBossy.” She’s someone who still knows who she is!
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