TaQuan Samuels sits amid empty desks as she works in her Pierre Toussaint Academy classroom.
DETROIT - Glue sticks and maps. A globe and a bulletin board. Cubbyholes and backpacks. For everything that's normal about Tammy Hartley's first-grade class, it's obvious that something is wrong. There are 24 desks. And 24 chairs. But only 10 children.
DETROIT - Glue sticks and maps. A globe and a bulletin board. Cubbyholes and backpacks.
For everything that's normal about Tammy Hartley's first-grade class, it's obvious that something is wrong.
There are 24 desks. And 24 chairs.
But only 10 children.
A week after a horrific bus accident involving dozens of pupils and adults from southwest Detroit's Pierre Toussaint Academy, Mrs. Hartley's room is less crowded and more subdued.
Colleen Buscemi, who was aboard the bus when it was struck by a tractor-trailer rig, discusses the accident as the school's principal, James Bouvy, listens in.
It's given her more time to spend with each child as they work on subtraction and words like box, log, and rock. But the children, with few visual scars, have noticed the absence of the classmates who suffered broken bones, ruptured organs, and worse.
“It's really hard for them to see the empty desks every day,” Mrs. Hartley said.
Last week, dozens of Pierre Toussaint pupils were headed to a Monroe County apple orchard for a field trip when their bus pulled in front of a tractor-trailer rig carrying 38 tons of steel.
The resulting collision mangled the bus, severely hurt many, and scarred nearly all the 41 children and 17 adults aboard. Miraculously, no one died.
As the children returned to school Monday, they were greeted with an outpouring of support. Balloons hung from the flagpole; banners from schoolmates and others were taped to walls. Everyone's thinking of you, read one. PTA Loves You, read another.
A sign from a third-grade class at a nearby school offers support to the first-grade students.
But there were other, more subtle signs that the accident, though in the past, was part of the present.
Some children were acting out. Others were reluctant to come into the school. A few would cry without provocation.
As Mrs. Colleen Buscemi handed over her class to the gym teacher yesterday, she pointed out one of the children. “This one has stitches,” she said. “Take it easy.”
Both Mrs. Hartley and Mrs. Buscemi were sitting behind bus driver Beverly Smith as it crossed Telegraph Road on Erie Road. Mrs. Buscemi could see that the truck was headed right for her. “Oh my God! He's not stopping,” she cried.
In the last seconds, the truck veered in an attempt to avoid the bus. It couldn't.
Tammy Hartley says many of her students have become clingy.
The truck struck the back of the bus and, in an instant, the two teachers became mothers, nurses, and counselors. Injured themselves, they turned their attention to the children, going from child to child, ambulance to ambulance, helicopter to helicopter.
Today, like the children, they are in pain. Both first-grade teachers are experiencing severe headaches. Mrs. Hartley is having nightmares and suffering from severe anxiety.
Now, back in the classroom, they must focus on their pupils.
“They're very sad. Some of them are acting out,” Mrs. Hartley said during a break as her pupils worked on art projects. “They're very clingy with me. They need to know that I'm here and I'm safe.”
But, she said: “They need us more than we need time alone.”
Moments later, she returns to her class, and three boys smile and shout “Teacher! Teacher! You're back!” They jump from their desks, run to Mrs. Hartley, and give her a hug.
A visitor asked if this would have happened two weeks ago. She nods her head: “No.”
Counselors have been on hand every day to talk with pupils and staff, to help them deal with their pain and their grief. The school has about 400 students in grades K-8. It is a charter school that emphasizes the basics.
In the wake of the crash, some children are showing compassion and empathy, emotions not always associated with 6-year-olds.
Before the accident, two first graders, John and Anfernee, were often at odds, typical “boy stuff,” Mrs. Hartley said.
Then, at the accident scene, John found Anfernee. He put his arm around him as they sat in the grass as the chaos unfolded around them. “He was comforting his friend and that made him feel better,” Mrs. Hartley said. This week, their bond continued.
One child, 6-year-old Chelsey Grasty, was released from St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center this week. She's back home with her father, Charles, and his wife, Helen, who was also on the bus. Chelsey, described as a spunky child by Mrs. Buscemi, is looking forward to returning to Pierre Toussaint.
“She's doing great,” Mr. Grasty said. “She wants to go back to school.”
In Mrs. Buscemi's classroom, aide Sharon Dabner has heard the children ask questions about their missing classmates, like Chelsey. They were questions she hadn't heard before.
“At that moment, I saw a lot of love come out,” she said. “It was remarkable.”
As the school works to find normalcy, many are optimistic. Ms. Dabner believes their survival is a miracle, and she remains upbeat and positive.
“By Monday, we'll be pretty much back to normal,” she said.
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