As we drove in a crisscross pattern through the streets of New Orleans this afternoon, Betsy and I talked about the effects of poverty on children. We agreed that the similarities between these children were more numerous than the differences regardless to whether they lived in Boston or the Big Easy. Betsy is one of several friends I have made through this blog. She and her husband are visiting the city from her home state of Maine to work with a group of charitable volunteers from Rebuilding Together. Rebuilding Together is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve affordable housing by bringing volunteers and communities together to rehabilitate the homes of low-income homeowners. They have been helping homeowners in our city since the hurricane. Unfortunately, Betsy’s husband was in an accident and most of their month-long visit has been in the hospital where he underwent surgery and therapy during the past two weeks.
It was an opportunity for me to show off our city and spend time with someone who “gets it.” Betsy understands why we need to rebuild our city, why we are so frustrated with the slow pace of progress, why we get up every morning and try to put our lives back together. I picked her up from her apartment in the lower garden district of uptown New Orleans at 1:00 p.m. We drove downtown through the Esplanade Ridge area where large majestic houses still dominate the landscape, even though most of them have been carved up into apartments. This area was not damaged by flood waters. Like the French Quarters, the lawns still bear beautiful trees, flowers, and shrubbery. It’s a telling observation that locals can point out because so many of our old oak and magnolia trees did not survive the salty water. One of the most startling sights for me upon my first trip back to the city following Hurricane Katrina was the gray, mud covered, dead grass and shrubs. There was nothing green in my neighborhood.
Our first visit was to our school. The students are taking the LEAP tests this week and the school was unusually quiet. We visited a class of Kindergarten students and admired the work posted in the corridor. The students had written short stories in excellent script. Some of their compositions were typed on a computer and included illustrations. The teacher is someone that I’ve know for more than twenty years. She is a fabulous teacher who makes it fun for the students and a joy for their parents. At least half of her students are strong readers before they reach first grade. It’s a pattern that she follows every year.
We spent a little time chatting with the principal and the business manager. Although we only stayed about an hour, I also had time to talk with the Speech Therapist. She has made a connection with a group of health care workers whose grant will help us conduct mandated health screenings. I was very happy to learn that she had taken the initiative to get this additional resource for our children. It was a lucky day for us when we hired Gail.
I checked the boxes of candy and the motivational posters we received from another “blog friend,” Rev. Mary from Massachusetts. The children will be delighted to receive the candy fish “brain food” donated by her church members. I also noticed two more boxes of books donated by a different internet acquaintance, Kelly from California, also made through this blog. When Betsy saw the boxes of books from Kelly, she offered to ask her grandchildren, avid readers, if they would be interested in donating books to the children at our school. If they do, I hope they will write notes to the children on the inside covers.
We left McDonogh 42 and drove pass my old school, Oretha Castle Haley. It is not on the list to be demolished and I hope it can be restored. I spent more than twenty years there as principal and it breaks my heart to see it abandoned and falling to pieces. The open windows (which were supposed to be boarded up) reminded me of the hard work we all put into creating a place where neighborhood children could learn, live, and love.
Our next stop was at the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology. The annual ASCD conference is in town and our state organization –LASCD- has a booth at the conference. Doris Hicks, Principal of King is the current president of the state affiliate. Betsy sat through the brief meeting and listened to us plan for our booth activities, the special conference events, and school concerns. I’ll be manning the LASCD booth on Saturday and Sunday afternoons this weekend. We have special giveaways for the visitors including pralines and carnival beads.
After the meeting, we drove through the Lower Ninth Ward so that my visitor could get a closer view of the devastation caused by the flooding. We took pictures of the houses that floated from their bases and newly constructed homes with flowering gardens. People who come to town for conventions rarely get to see the most damaged areas of the city, unless they take a Katrina Tour. We ended our drive by meandering back uptown along the river and through the French Quarter. Ironically, her next door neighbors are involved in another charter school, the Esperanza Charter School, that also opened this year. It was almost 6:00 p.m.
I was supposed to spend the afternoon writing a grant that is far overdue. It will require a serious effort to complete it by the end of the week. But today, I had the chance to see my city through the eyes of an outsider. Betsy saw hope and promise and reminded me of why we are here, why we need to rebuild our city, why we are so frustrated with the slow pace of progress, and why we get up every morning and try to put our lives back together.
The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.