New Orleans Revisited

My husband and I were invited, rather spontaneously, to be the guests of honor at a Christmas dinner for the teachers of the preschool/elementary school that we (you who donated plus my family) “adopted” in New Orleans last year. How could we say no?

A week later, we hopped on a plane and arrived to enjoy the 77 degree weather and the famous (and not overrated) hospitality of the people of New Orleans. But when we parked our car in front of the school, we hesitated getting out. The “neighborhood,” a euphemism for what we saw, reflected poverty and danger beyond anything I’d seen previously—and I grew up in an urban environment. The school itself was surrounded by barbed wire with a uniformed guard securing the front door. He took our licenses and signatures, reminding me of the procedures I had to go through when I had worked at a maximum security prison.

However, once inside, we were swept up in a surprisingly different energy. I was greeted with a hug by Kim, the vice principal who had become my pen pal and liaison. She was exactly as I had imagined—stately and dignified, yet warm. It was recess so Kim took us out to the school yard. The kids, dressed in crisp, clean uniforms, were rambunctious as they played ball and jumped on the new playground equipment. Kim confided, “This is the only place where they get to be kids. Some of these kids are living with strangers or distant relatives. They may not even know where their parents are since Katrina. School is their safety zone.” At that moment, a fight broke out among three boys. Kim excused herself and walked up to the boys. She touched them on their shoulders and bent down to their height. Calmly but authoritatively, she asked each boy to tell her his side of the story. Then she reminded them that they could not resort to hitting and had to come up with another strategy to resolve their conflict. She waited for them to confer and collaborate, which took surprisingly little time.

We were so impressed with the respectful, thoughtful manner Kim used with the children and found this to continue to be our experience as we sat in on several classes. In each classroom, all the children were happily engaged and the teachers involved. Kim was happy to be able to boast that the school’s test scores have doubled since last year. What makes this so remarkable is that the conditions under which these teachers are working are so stressful that it is sheer tenacity and open heartedness that account for this school’s success in the face of such great odds. Many teachers are themselves still living in temporary shelters, still suffering emotionally, financially, and physically from Katrina’s aftermath. They, along with the children, are still grieving the loss of family members who died, homes that were swept away, and lives that will never be the same. But these teachers show up every day with smiles on their faces and total dedication to these children.

For example, funds haven’t stretched far enough to provide diapers for the youngest preschoolers, so the teachers buy them out of their own small salaries. When I hear about the national “Teacher of the Year” award, I wish that each and every one of the teachers we met at James Weldon Johnson School would be recognized for their daily heroism.

After our school visit, we met up with Janet, my friend who owns the Mon Coeur jewelry store on Magazine Street, and Richard, my tour guide from the previous year who had befriended me. We talked about what has changed for New Orleans and for them personally in the past year. It seems that the initial shock has subsided along with some of the depression as the city continues to recover visually. However, there is a sense of tentativeness that is accompanied by the reality that they will continue to feel the economic hardship that the entire country now faces. In addition, they can’t forget that they are just one Category 5 storm away from disaster. This awareness infuses their everyday life in a way that is hard for outsiders to understand.

On our last night in town, Janet set up a dinner for all those I had counseled the year before. There was more laughter this year, which was wonderful to hear, and a lot of gratitude expressed for my having come the year before. But I noted every individual’s awareness that life is tentative. Maybe this lesson is a good one for all of us to contemplate, I thought, especially during this time of sweeping changes globally and within our own country.

My husband and I left New Orleans inspired by the tenacity, honesty, humility, and quirkiness of its inhabitants. We also felt a renewed commitment to bolster the efforts of the school’s administrators and teachers, who walk in every day determined to change the destinies of over 300 children. To this end, I will get a new wish list and let you know what you can do to help. By the way, Kim wanted to make sure that each of you knew how much your generosity has meant to these kids. After seeing what is being done in this school with my own eyes, I can tell you that your support hasn’t just make a difference; it has changed lives. A year ago, these children had no tables or chairs in the cafeteria, no microphone for the makeshift stage, no cabinet to hold their basketball trophy, no overhead projector, and no microwave, forcing them to eat still-frozen food. All that has changed in just one short year.

My take away from New Orleans is a reminder that no matter how tenuous circumstances may be, each of us can have a dramatic impact on others in ways we cannot predict or even fully imagine. But we can and do make a difference.

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