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Higher Ground

Charmain Chatman

When the water in the living room reached her waist, Charmain Chatman told her four-year-old son, Jaleal, that it was time to play a game. The object was to get to the highest spot in the house. His Uncle William was going to help him up through a little door in the wall. Then his Uncle Samuel was going to carry him, stepping-stone-wise, across the attic’s beams to a slatted section of floor where they could stand.

“You could see that he was nervous,” Chatman says. “But I think it just reassured him to play along.”

As a single mother working her way through college, Chatman knows a thing or two about grace under pressure. But she’d never dealt with anything quite like Hurricane Katrina, which filled her father’s Biloxi, Miss., house with five feet of water and rolled the tin sheets on its roof into curlicues. It destroyed most of her belongings, closed the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Park campus two days into her senior year, and generally brought her life to a standstill.

Thankfully, in the weeks since, Chatman has had some help getting to higher ground. She’s one of 92 hurricane-displaced men and women whom the UW has taken in as non-matriculated exchange students. That means that whatever tuition money they pay will stay with their home institution. The University has also set up a Katrina Student Resource Center in Mary Gates Hall, to help the new arrivals handle the practical details of relocation.

And Chatman has had other guardian angels. A group of her mother’s high school classmates paid for her plane ticket to Seattle, and a local business put her up in an apartment near campus with cable and a phone. She arrived the Sunday before classes were to start and signed up for in the ones she needed to keep her biology major on track—physics, cellular physiology and the history of science. Slowly, she says, a sense of normality is returning to her life.

Jaleal, meanwhile, seems to have taken it all in stride. He’s going to school at the Children’s Center in Laurel Village, and is cheerily telling his story to anyone who will listen.

“With everybody that we meet on the street, he’s like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? A hurricane was at my house,’ ” Chatman says. “So I’m constantly explaining. And I’m constantly telling him, ‘You know, Jaleal, you don’t always have to say that.’ ”

—Eric McHenry

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