On a recent evening in late July, several former educators from Chester Grade School, along with a handful of former students, gathered at the Chester Public Library to reminisce about a 25-year-old project, a 200 page manuscript about the Mississippi River flood of 1993.
Technically an anthology of narratives, poetry, photographs and hand drawn illustrations, the book is titled "Children Of The Flood" and was compiled by students and teachers of Chester Grade School. Larry Baldwin, an elementary teacher at the school at that time, served as the director and editor of the project.
The nearly 40,000 word manuscript was made possible because of eight years of the school's Writing is Necessary (WIN) project, which was a locally developed, schoolwide writing program for kindergarten through eighth grade students. Because of the WIN program, Chester Grade School students had a background of writing and, according to Baldwin, were "up to the challenge" of compiling the book. The forward of the manuscript was written by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.
Baldwin said the manuscript had been sent to Random House at the time of its completion, in the hope that they would consider publication. The children's editor at Random House told him that they were very interested and asked him to not share the manuscript with anyone else. At the time, the assistant to the children's editor was Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
Baldwin kept his word and did not share the work with any other publisher. After four months of not hearing from Random House, Baldwin contacted the children's editor, only to be told that due to the "timely nature of the subject," and since the water had receded, they would not be publishing the book.
Baldwin, teachers and students were very disappointed. The manuscript has been stored in Baldwin's basement for 25 years and, along with accompanying artwork and photographs, is on display at the Chester Public Library through the end of August.
Many of the children whose writing is printed in the book actually experienced their homes being flooded. Others, who were not directly affected by the water, were affected emotionally by the experiences of their friends.
Part One of 'Children Of The Flood' includes brief gems by the youngest students, age appropriately simple and yet poignant. One first grader wrote, "They went back home and their houses were gone." A second grader stated, "The water was so deep that grass hung from power lines." A frightened third grade student stated, "The National Guard rode in Humvees. They made me feel like I was in a war zone." And another, "We don't know what normal is anymore."
A sixth grade student who lived on the flooded Kaskaskia Island, wrote "Some lost everything. Like me." Another said, "Roads seem to vanish into the stretch of the open river. You have to imagine where things were and what they looked like." An eighth grade student shared, "Some people thought we should just let the Mississippi River take its course. But it's hard to let the river take your home without putting up a fight."
Part Two of the manuscript includes actual stories, 156 of them, with such titles as "Heartbroken", "The Terrible Flood", "Water In My House", "We Are Not Going Back", "Tragedy Strikes", "Losing Hope" and "Rotted Boards & Broken Spirits". Part Three includes 18 poems and Part Four includes stories by three of the Chester Grade School teachers, along with artwork by six students. Baldwin gave great credit to Chester Grade School secretary Barb Holley, who he said served throughout the project as his 'girl Friday'. "She did a magnificent job of collating all of the info." He also gave credit to the Chester High School typing students and their teacher, Donna Clendenin, who did all the typing for the manuscript.
"When I think about the flood of 1993, I think about the children who had to endure the horrors. They had to be very frightened. I think they were heroes," Baldwin said. "I think we hit a home run with this manuscript and I've always been disappointed that it wasn't published."