How the Children of New Orleans Changed My Life

NEW ORLEANS (March 22, 2008)-I speak for all 26 Howard University student volunteers when I say that the week we spent with the seventh and eighth graders at Thurgood Marshall Middle School has forever changed our lives. For me, I thought I would have a modestly pleasurable experience–you know, go back to Howard at the end of the week and them continue on with the rest of my life. Not so. These kids are now my kids. I can feel their pain.

Many children in the school are from disadvantaged homes. And anyone who knows about children knows that kids are the products of their parents. At the beginning of the week, we saw what seemed like horrible kids. They fought each other. Their language was vulgar and obscene. Their academic achievement (for some of them) was below the standard level. And, a select few were two and three years behind their class. When I say that, I mean that there were 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds in seventh grade and a 17-year old in eighth grade. One of my favorite students was 16 … in the eighth grade.

As students ourselves, we grew to love these kids. The local school board had taken all resources and a sense of hope away from these kids–and the teachers. The behavioral problems were so severe at the beginning of the week that we saw a security guard manhandle and handcuff a 14-year-old like he was a prisoner in a correctional facility. Though the child had ignored the security officer’s questions as he was in the hall switching classes–and may have had a few choice words for the guard– he did not do anything to deserve such a brutal attack.

He was later released and allowed to go back into the class.

We saw students curse out a white teacher. We saw them tempt and taunt her as she tried to teach a lesson. Not just one or two students–the whole class. The saddest thing that we saw was children–human beings, babies, kids–being treated like caged animals in a system that cares not for them.

When school started back for these kids, it was run and operated out of trailers in the 9th Ward–the most heavily affected area of New Orleans. So affected that civilization in this area no longer exists. Neighborhoods are gone. Houses are gone. People are gone. But the school system bused the children of Thurgood Marshall to this desolate section of town.

The school was then relocated into an abandoned Catholic school. Though the city had spent hundreds of dollars refurbishing the Thurgood Marshall Middle School building, the children and staff were told that they could not have that space. They could not teach their kids in their school building. Instead, the Marshall Middle School building went to two charter schools that had opened since the storm. The building still displays the Thurgood Marshall Middle School name.

There are only five teachers in the whole school. Some who were hired at the beginning of the school year quit. I can understand. Who can work in these circumstances? No computer, no Internet access, limited books, no extra curricular programs or activities, no free time, no art class, NO SCHOOL BUILDING.

But to the kids, the departure of each teacher seems like another abandonment. Some of the kids lost parents in the storm. Almost all of the kids have witnessed a loved one being murdered or shot. On the second day I was there, one of the eighth grade girls wasn’t feeling well. Even though we volunteers were there, she did not want to do any of her school work. Later we found out that one of her neighborhood friends had been shot multiple times and died. She was upset that she was not allowed to go to his funeral.

She’s 14 years old.

These stories go on and on. What I witnessed was not a made-for-TV movie. There was no good-hearted suburban teacher who came in and saved that day. If anything, the kids could not identify with the “suburban” teachers. The white teachers. They showed them the least respect.

But what I will say is that having the Howard student volunteers there for that week really boosted the spirits of the kids, the teachers and everyone involved. At the end of each work day, we would go back to our boarding house with what seemed like devastating stories about our kids. The students who worked on other projects, like gutting and painting houses, would be horrified by our testimonies. They wanted to meet the kids; discipline the kids. But we were falling deeper in love with them, day by day.

The behavioral problems improved so much that on the last day the security guards had absolutely nothing to do. We held a talent show for the kids. And one volunteer said that the security guards looked so bored they were walking on the mock runway that we made for the fashion show portion of the talent show.

(On the day we arrived, the guards had just arrested a child, who was subsequently suspended. They also made comments like, “you’re wasting your time,” when refering to the kids.)

More than five kids were suspended the week we were there. At least two were arrested and expelled. (See the Free Weezey blog entry.)

Many kids said that this was the best week of school they have ever had at Marshall. All of the kids opened up and even got a chance to talk about some of the problems that they have been dealing with since Hurricane Katrina.

Everything in New Orleans is labeled as “before the storm” or “since the hurricane.” The kids even use these terms when explaining what Marshall was like before the storm. It used to be a prestigious school that was known for its extracurriculars, especially the marching band.

The best thing I have ever done in my life to this point is to have met those kids.

The kids and volunteers exchanged contact info on the last day. The highlight of the day was at the very end when all the volunteers lined up in front of the school as the kids boarded their buses. As each bus pulled off, we waved in unison and blew kisses at the kids. We really are going to miss them. As one of the buses began to drive away, one little girl yelled out of the window to a volunteer, “I’ll see you at Howard.”

I broke into tears.