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Norwich - When writing teacher Prentice Tracy assigned his seventh-grade class at Kelly Middle School to write a narrative about a significant event in their lives, student Guerloudy Alexandre hesitated.
Guerloudy, 13, had never written about how she and her family lived through the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010.
"I didn't know how to write it," Guerloudy (pronounced Ger-loody) said last week, "because there was so much that happened. … It's there in my head. It's been in my head every day."
Coached by Tracy, Guerloudy wrote several drafts of her story, bringing it to a point where Tracy wanted to share it with others. He sent it to Superintendent Abby Dolliver.
"Thanks very much for sharing this with me," Dolliver wrote back on a sticky note Tracy keeps on his desk. "Please ask the student if she can share this. It is so touching. Please continue to do this great work encouraging our students."
Last week, Guerloudy stood before a crowded conference room and read her four-page story to rousing applause, congratulations from the Board of Education and a slew of questions she answered with confidence.
Four years earlier, Guerloudy was living in the middle-class neighborhood Port-au-Prince Fort Mercredi. On the morning of the earthquake, her mother, Guerline Baptiste, and her father, Joseph Alexandre, were fighting, but she, her sister and brother didn't know why. Her grandmother, Elise Baptiste, scolded them for fighting so soon before the children's father was preparing to leave for the United States to work.
At dinner, their world shook. Guerloudy was paralyzed with fear and her mother grabbed her to get her to run to safety.
They choked on thick dusty air as everyone ran from crumbling buildings. Although her family was OK, Guerloudy and her siblings cried like everyone else. Nearly 200 people in her neighborhood slept outside as aftershocks struck.
Unable to reach relatives by phone, they decided to walk to their former neighborhood - like walking from Norwich to New London, she wrote.
"It was a hard process, especially the fact that we passed by several houses that were on the verge of falling," she wrote. "We had to run past them. Dead bodies were lined up on the street in patterns. I felt like I was running a marathon and my lungs were going to explode."
Her dad was handed a list of missing people. No family but many friends were listed.
"As I looked around the street, I realized just how horrible the scene looked," Guerloudy wrote. "The beautiful places I once knew were now filled with mourning people and dead bodies. The warm air I usually felt was now chilly, as if everything had changed overnight."
For two months, Guerloudy and her family lived in a tent city on a big field. The children carted clean water as men dug through rubble for survivors, bodies, food and much-needed supplies.
Her parents fought again, when her dad said he and older brother Joey Alexandre, now 15, would leave for the United States when the airport reopened. He promised to continue working on paperwork to bring the rest of the family to Charleston, S.C.
By summer, he had succeeded.
Guerloudy said her mother still can't talk about the earthquake but has visited Haiti a few times since it struck. Guerloudy wanted to go but wasn't allowed to miss school. Her mother told her that new roads and houses have made old neighborhoods unrecognizable.
Guerloudy's parents have since separated and she, her brother and younger sister, Sherlande, now 11, moved to Norwich with their mother 18 months ago in time for the start of the 2012-13 school year.
Guerloudy told school board members that when she and her siblings moved to the United States, they spoke no English. She thanked teachers in Charleston and Norwich for their help and her father for pushing her.
"He was hard," she said.
A voracious reader, Guerloudy said she loves to explore other worlds in books - especially the "Junie B. Jones" books by Barbara Park.
Guerloudy's mother works two jobs to support the family, and as the oldest girl, Guerloudy takes on many household chores and looks out for her sister, a fifth-grader at the John M. Moriarty School. Sherlande, 11, won her school's superintendent's award in November as a top citizen-student. Their brother, Joey, 15, attends Norwich Free Academy.
Guerloudy said her family struggles have taught her to be independent and self-motivated. She wants to be a writer or a doctor when she grows up and hopes to visit Haiti when she's old enough.
Guerloudy said until recently, she would flinch whenever a loud plane flew overhead and shook the house. Her church, the First Haitian Baptist Church of Norwich, marked the fourth anniversary of the earthquake last week with stories and updates on progress in the island country.