I lived in Louisiana until I was five years old. On my way to the private preschool I attended, I remember passing a public school, and asking my mother, “why don’t I go to that school?” She replied because they don’t have toilet paper in the bathrooms and they do have cockroaches. Last week, when Mindy & I were getting ready to do a show in one of the public after-school programs; I couldn’t find any toilet paper in any of the six bathrooms stalls… I did find cockroaches, dead & alive. These two things in and of themselves could be mere inconveniences, but are symptoms of a larger systemic issue with New Orleans public schools.
Mindy & I spent an afternoon assistant teaching Circus Arts, a little girl came into our classroom (a cafeteria/hallway/meeting area) from the playground holding her left hand and sobbing, she had just fallen off the jungle gym and most likely broken her wrist or arm. There had been no supervision on the playground. When Mindy took her to the main office, no less than ten teachers were talking and hanging around. Why and how had she been able to be alone outside? The discipline theory of this particular school is to yell/humiliate the students into submission. The number of children enrolled vastly outnumber the teachers available. It was a jarring rough environment, not emotionally or physically safe. Oddly, the kids are sometimes unsupervised and the first chance the students get to run/rough house they absolutely take over. Then they are verbally beaten down again.
Fifteen minutes before our Circus Arts class was over, doors opened from the hallway and classes of unsupervised kids rushed into the cafeteria meeting area. Not one group was accompanied by a teacher or adult, as they ran into our class yelling, fighting, playing tag, roughhousing. We were working hard with three different groups of students; the head Circus Arts teacher was with the stilt walkers, Mindy with the hat dancers and I was with the tumbling kids. The unsupervised students became climbing/walking over the mats, playing with the equipment and causing chaos. Usually the Circus Arts teacher teaches this class by herself, I can’t imagine, these students were a handful with three teachers in the room.
The problems that New Orleans is suffering existed before the Hurricanes and exist in every American city to some lesser or greater extent, but the tragedy of New Orleans, in particular is the process of reconstruction, or lack thereof in many places. The post-Hurricane landscape is a magnifying glass of the stark realities between wealth & poverty, socio-political agendas, corruption and that the race issues of the pre Civil Rights era that still exist with a slightly different personalities. A tourist, and even a resident of New Orleans, could easily exist in the area, visiting the French Quarter, Downtown & some areas of Uptown New Orleans and see a vibrant, energetic city that has overcome a crisis. Sadly, as there are probably many who visit who never see the reality of New Orleans. Travel ten to fifteen minutes down St.Claude and another reality exists. Signs on several schools still read August 2005, dilapidated closed down hospitals, unpaved roads, abandoned houses, gas stations & stores line the road. One in ten houses, seems to be inhabited, and it is not necessarily because they were able to remodel their homes. The innards of gutted houses lines the streets.
This is the 9th ward and twenty-two months later it still looks like a war zone. The residents who have stayed are primarily black & low income. Most of the people who have been “relocated” to temporary FEMA housing in Baker were renters here before the Hurricanes. The lack of reconstruction is not solely a race factor though. Five minutes further down the road where St.Claude turns into St.Bernard Highway is Chalmette. There are still very few street signs, so it is a little hard to find your way around. The storms ravaged New Orleans on Monday, but Chalmette didn’t receive any federal assistance until Friday. What kind of emergency response is that? It is a lower income, primarily white, working class town with more landowners than in the 9th ward, so more residents have stayed and put up trailers in the front yard while they try to rebuild. It also has one of the largest high schools in the country that serves 4,000 students.
Andrew Jackson high school brings us to one of the positives of the recent months. We performed five shows for PlayPower, a new youth program. When I visited Louisiana last year, we had extensive trouble finding children’s groups to play for within the city. The mayor’s office denied that there was any FEMA housing within the city limits (there was, either they didn’t know, or didn’t want us to go there). This is the first summer for many new programs: PlayPower in Chalmette, The Freedom School in the 7th Ward, and Emergency Communities in the 9th Ward. The people who are working hard to make programming for children that is empowering, stimulating & interesting, are either completely volunteer or paid very little. Many of them are struggling to get back on their feet themselves, continuing to live in trailers or temporary housing.
There was a natural disaster, but the way in which education, rebuilding streets & homes & businesses is the heartbreaking tragedy. Especially, since the eye of the media has already swung away to the far-off Middle East and the 2008 elections, and it is the children who are being left behind. The concerned citizens of the region have recently been forced to work twice as hard for their long-term goals because funding is starting to be cut. It is not logical to think that an entire city, with roughly half its population, will be brought back to life in under two years… but that is what the funding statistics must presume. This is a long journey, ten to twenty years, and we can’t forget about the struggle of our own American refugees.