Window is open. New Orleans is quiet save for the sirens. I’m half way under the covers, drinking water for dinner, imagining the kids who handed these cards to me, seeing their sheepish grins and feeling so special. I carry around a little stack of these cards everywhere I go. Thank yous from my kids. I read them when I need a boost. Oh, boy, does it work.
In the last 72 hours as a teacher in New Orleans, I’ve heard it all. Here’s a sampling of the soundtrack:
You don’t have enough desks? You have 30-how-many kids in your classes?
What we’re doing here, the fire marshall would say is illegal.
It’s too [cold, hot, early, late] to do work.
Get out my face.
Please don’t call my mama.
Can I be the time-keeper?
You just made my day.
Don’t believe a word my daughter says.
I need a favor. Please call my dad and tell him how good I’m doing.
I deserve hot chips. I do your homework! I never done nobody’s homework!
My brother, his car got shot up last night. He died. He was in college and everything.
My uncle died last night. And my rabbit.
My dog died this morning.
I’m having lady problems and I’m gonna faint.
I had a seizure.
I been in the hospital for 3 days.
My shift from 11 till 2 in the morning.
You have a booger in your nose.
Your shoes are whack.
Your outfit is poo.
That’s my jam.
Today in a 10th grade English class in New Orleans we analyzed the use of third person omniscient point of view in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. We are 3 chapters in and my kids are seriously blowing my mind. Academic conversations. Thoughtful arguments. It’s incredible. I credit last year’s English teachers.
Me: Om. Ni. Scient.
Them: Om. Ni. Scient.
Me: So, let’s break that word down.
Omni = All
Scient = Knowing.
Y’all ever been to church and heard the preacher say, The Almighty Ominiscient, or something like that?
Me: So 3rd person omniscient means the narrator is kinda like God looking down. Knowing everything. Seeing into your heart and mind. (Hand shoots up) Yes?
Them: You mean like Santa Claus?
A tragedy occurred last night in New Orleans. Another young black male was shot and is in critical condition. According to nola.com, 14-year-old Marshall Coulter was shot a few feet from the a backdoor of a home that was not his, after scaling the property’s fence. The homeowner, Merritt Landry, has been charged with attempted second degree murder.
Marshall’s older brother says, “He was a professional thief, sure,” says his older brother David. But David goes on to say that Marshall would “never pick up a gun,” and that he is “still a little boy.”
Similar to the George Zimmerman case coverage, the articles are already citing Louisiana’s Castle law allowing any Louisianian to use force, deadly or otherwise, to protect oneself on his or her property, or “castle,” as long as such force is “reasonable and apparently necessary to prevent such offense.” And like Trayvon Martin, Marshall Coulter was unarmed. The similarities seem to stop there, but the term “racial profiling” has shown up in the news articles already. If you ask me, it seems less like racial profiling and more like someone-jumped-my-fence-at-two-a.m.-and-my-dog-is-going-ape-shit profiling. Would I have reacted the same as Mr. Landry in that situation? I don’t know. I hope I never know.
Marshall was not my student, but as a member of the auntie/mother/social worker guild known as teacher in New Orleans, I know many Marshalls. My kids are in and out of jail for robberies, rapes, attempted murder, murder. They wear ankle bracelets to class, they have probation officers, and they have life long limitations from their arrest records and criminal backgrounds, all at the tender “little boy” age of 14. They are often missing parental role models and older siblings who have cleared a path out.
Does it mean I love those Marshalls any less? Absolutely not. They’re the most in need of love. And the most in need of education, although in my experience, my students with major criminal records were often quite intelligent.
So pause for a moment and consider why someone steals. Consider why someone prostitutes. Consider why someone sells drugs. Judgement free. Just ask why. It’s typically not because there are so many other viable options sitting on the table, and basic needs are being met in safe, legal ways. Louisiana is the prison capital of the world after all. (This 8-part prison series from NOLA.com is a mind-blowing read.)
Would you have more empathy for a kid who steals so his older sister who is raising him doesn’t have to prostitute herself anymore so their seven siblings can eat while mom does time in jail? Because that’s the kind of stuff that’s happening here in New Orleans. I had a student tell me he didn’t know how to feel about his mom who stole to feed them. And neither do I.
I’m not saying crime is justifiable. But it’s not a choice I’ve had to make in real time, nor do I know what choice I would make in a situation of destitution. I can only see things from my perspective, where I’ve been and what I’ve done. What example have my students seen? Where have they been? What have they done? Who are they watching make life’s decisions?
It’s huge. Overwhelming. Instead of a spin cycle, it feels like we’re stuck on rinse and repeat.
My Instagram buzzes with snapshots of my old students in New Orleans. I have about 8 previous students whose photos I see on a regular basis. Here is a quick run down of the types of photos they post:
- Selfie* with duck lips**.
- Sonogram photos.
- Hot wings from Hooters.
- Bottles of gin.
- Joints, blunts, pipes, weed. Any sort of smoking contraption.
- Grinning or otherwise posing with the middle finger flying high. Fully up. Fully.
- Babies. Mostly theirs. Sometimes a little brother or sister or niece or nephew.
- Post-shower selfie with shirt off. Middle finger up.
- My male student and two girls with bangin’ booties in tiny thongs standing on a front porch together. One girl grips a beer bottle under her right butt cheek.
- Old pictures of other students of mine who are awaiting trial in jail for 2nd degree murder with captions like “Free my brother!”
- Baby shower pictures. Two old students of mine pose together, the girl is huge with child in a grass skirt and crop top, her belly written on with Sharpie. The baby shower was clearly Hawaiian themed with leis and straw hats. I had these kids in the 2011-12 school year in 8th grade. Babies having babies! (Six of my 8th grade girls from that school year either had babies already or have one — or a second one– on the way!)
- Cryptic messages about friends they’ve lost and family members they’re mourning.
- Pictures of girls in short shorts/crop tops and creepy notes from strangers about how hot they are.
I feel dirty about peering into their lives, but I’m curious to see how they’re doing from a distance. Of course some I still talk to on a regular basis, about graduation plans or getting a job or books they’re reading or boys they’re dating or education they are or are not getting in New Orleans. A teacher probably never connects with a group of students in the way he or she connects with the first year’s students. I wouldn’t be friends with my kids on Facebook, but Instagram somehow feels less harmless, less friend-y and more voyeur-y, sneaking a peek into the day-to-day of a kid who you once knew.
*Selfie – image taken of yourself. Can include others, but is generally just you.
**Duck lips – exaggerated, pouted, non-smiling lips. Also, duck face.
I hosted Fluency Olympics in my Rewards classes during this past week in New Orleans. This was my favorite short answer from my students, although many of them were similarly toned. I love that he’s not not afraid to read aloud in class! Watching my fluency students’ incredible growth was inspiring, solidifying my desire to continue to be a teacher in New Orleans. We are officially out of school for the summer. Next stop: summer school. Tomorrow.
I flew to Durham to meet my new nephew. On the cab ride to their house, I had the most beautiful conversation with my Syrian taxi driver. He asked where I came from, what I did.
A teacher in New Orleans carries days worth of stories. (I like that.)
He asks me, Do I think Katrina is more affecting, or is war more affecting? What changes kids more: natural disasters or bombs, guns, warfare?
He’s clearly close to the subject.
I tell him that both affect the children in different ways. Katrina is a natural disaster, although the after-effects were also man made. But war is only man-made. It’s injury we inflict on one another. So both, but for different reasons. How do we as humans hurt our brothers and sisters?
I ask him what he thinks.
He tells me, when he was a child in Syria (since this has been going on for 60 years), he saw death and gore and war. Heads missing. Blood. Body parts blown off. He was just 10. And it changed him.
I wish I could have recorded the conversation, although the conversation’s perfection exists in cab 86 alone.
He asks what stories of the kids I know.
I tell him some. Floating on air mattresses, losing your mother, wading through water for miles and seeing your siblings being carried in an empty, floating refrigerator, living with no food for 5 days with 20 people, your mom not even looking for you for 2 years, thinking she’s dead. I share with him, but speak tenderly and respectfully of my kids, for it’s their stories I share.
He tells me his heart hurts with what I say to him because he went through hell, too. He lived through war, too. He was changed as a child, too, and will always suffer the effects.
When he dropped me off, he got out of the car to tell me a story about always getting speeding tickets on I-70 between Denver and Salina. He had to get out. Too many gestures to stay seated. I bid him good night and told him I would be thinking about his kids, his family still in Syria living in a war torn country, struggling to survive. Literally. To survive.
And once again I am reminded how how lucky I am. And you.