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Between the lines of "Between the Lines": One year ago today

Why the inaugural session of Between the Lines happened in Chicago rather than Iowa City.

Take some teenagers from the Middle East and bring them to Iowa for two weeks to study creative writing alongside American teenagers. That's Between the Lines in a nutshell. (Check out the site for details.)

It was the first year of the program, and as the coordinator, I had spent the previous six months helping to put the whole thing together. Students and chaperones had been chosen,  teachers had been hired, visas and plane tickets were secured, classes and activities were scheduled, rooms were reserved and waiting.

Meanwhile, the water was rising.

I’ve spent my entire life in the Midwest, so I know what weather is. (There are those who question whether Cleveland, my childhood home, counts as “Midwest.” When it comes to weather at least, I offer two words: lake effect.) However, living in Iowa has brought new and unique weather adventures. It was here that a tornado came within half a mile of my apartment building. It was here that I first experienced a hail storm severe enough to make me fear for my windshield. It was here that I first had to buy lock de-icer. (Considering how long I lived in Chicago, I know that may sound hard to believe. Then again, things are a little more spread out here.)

The winter of 2007-2008 was the worst winter I’ve ever suffered through. When born-and-bred Iowans say it’s a bad winter, it’s a really bad winter. Imagine ice storms and snowstorms in rapid succession. Trees coated in thick ice that glittered at night and crackled during the day. Driving around what would normally be considered potholes if streets were made of ice and packed snow. (The city had run out of salt sometime in February.) Even walking was dangerous without Yaktrax or cleats; I loudly blessed the few houses with residents conscientious enough to clear their sidewalks. This record amount of precipitation kept coming after the temperatures rose above freezing. So not only did we have icemelt and snowmelt, we had rain. Lots of it. And the Iowa River bisected the campus.

First e-mail, June 11, approximately 2:30 pm: Iowa House Hotel (where our teachers were going to stay) closed indefinitely.

There are several B&Bs in the area; we’ll find someplace for them to stay. No problem.

Second e-mail, June 11, approximately 4:00 pm: The university fueling station shut down. Fortunately we already had the maxivans we needed to pick them up in Chicago.

We can still refill the maxivans at regular gas stations; we just have to use the van credit card. Simple procedure. Full steam ahead.

At approximately 2:00 pm on June 12: All youth camps canceled for the next 10 days. Dorms closed.

Eight time zones ahead, our three West Bank students were spending their last night at home, preparing to leave the next morning for Amman. Their trip would require them to pass through several checkpoints, adding time to an already long journey. They were being accompanied by the father and brother of one of the students. They would spend the night at a hotel in Amman, and then catch the June 14 flight to Chicago along with most of the rest of the group.

We had everything ready. We just needed someplace to put them all. At 6:00 pm we called the State Department and asked: Do we cancel? What do we do?

The State Department replied: Make it work.

And somehow, through the magic and power of connections both personal and electronic that I still can’t completely define, we did.

Within 24 hours we found two teachers, Danny Khalastchi and Anjali Sachdeva, who were willing to teach the English-language writing workshops. And with the help of Hull House-Chicago, we found a place to stay: the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). One of our staff members, Steve, made it over to the Rental Pool (on the other side of the river) to pick up 15 laptops and bring them to Shambaugh House before the last bridge was closed. Another staff member, Joe, was scheduled to fly to Newark to meet the two students who were traveling alone from Tel Aviv. He made it to the airport in Cedar Rapids right before Interstate 380 was shut down.

On June 14, parts of eastbound Interstate 80 were shut down as well, so we had to drive an extra hour just to get to the Illinois line. It was a mostly sunny day; in fact it looked like any summer day in June except for the various puddles, ponds, and lakes appearing where cropland used to be. They were calling it a “500-year flood,” which, I was disappointed to learn, was a mathematical rather than an historical term: This particular type and size of flood has a 1-in-500 chance of happening in any given year.

Ninety minutes into Illinois we stopped at a Wal-Mart to buy linens and towels since UIC wasn’t going to be able to get us any before Monday. Watching all the people doing what people normally do at a Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon, I had a moment of disconnect: Don’t they know there’s a disaster going on?

We went to UIC, dropped off our stuff, and then went to O’Hare Airport to meet our group. The international terminal is not that big, yet it took us a while to find them.

“We’re not going to Iowa,” we told them. “We’re staying here.”

--Kecia Lynn

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