Today marks the beginning of the seventh spring I have taught the New Orleans class. I’m having some difficulty with that realization, which may be because the course helps me mark the passage of time – there’s Christmas, then New Year’s Day, then New Orleans. Moreover, six classes of students and hard-working volunteers have become friends, graduates and colleagues.
Because I have a short attention span, the class evolves from year to year. The bones, the basic structure for the course remain the same, but from year to year there are changes in assignments, readings, and volunteer opportunities. The class dynamic likewise changes. And, as Hurricane Katrina grows smaller in the rear view mirror, New Orleans and the way we approach the storm have been witness to substantial changes, as well.
My first volunteer trip to New Orleans was in March 2006, a little over seven months following Katrina. I worked with some 1300 volunteers out of a FEMA camp in Chalmette, LA. We were fenced in. We had armed guards. Lights out at 10:00pm. A Dollar Store was the only retail establishment open in all of St. Bernard Parish. We were surrounded by thousands of homes, virtually all unoccupied, most still damp from flood waters, and many permanently soiled by oil and petrochemicals. Trees and shrubs could not shake-off being submerged under brackish water for weeks and failed to emerge that spring. And one had to strain to hear a song bird or witness life of any sort.
We worked in teams of 10 to 12, gutting homes in and around Chalmette. Collapsed ceilings and insulation, moldy walls, fetid refrigerators and freezers, and the waterlogged belongings of once proud homeowners were removed, and houses stripped to the studs. With masks, gloves, and goggles we worked in the filth and humidity, revering breaks during the day and racing to the showers and laundry in the afternoon. The homeowners, who cared, came and cried. We piled what porcelain, photographs, or other belongs that could be salvaged in a pile for them to reclaim. It was the worst and hardest job I have ever loved.
To escape the confinement and crowds of the camp, I discovered the Chalmette National Cemetery and Chalmette Battlefield a short walk away. They, like everything else, were damaged by the federal flood and closed, but there was nothing to stop me from visiting. I walked through the graves of generations of soldiers, many of them African-American soldiers from the Civil War. I sat among brick walls crumpled by the flood. I stood behind the redoubt where Andrew Jackson led a rag-tag army of frontiersman, local militia, free blacks, pirates, and Native Americans into battle on January 8, 1815. On the plain that lay between me and our camp, that force defeated the British army that had months prior forced Napoleon into exile. It was there, nearly two centuries later, of course, that the New Orleans course was conceived.
On a couple of evenings I hitched rides into the City where I discovered Frenchmen Street, a musical antidote to the commercialized sleaze of Bourbon Street. Even as the City struggled to recover from the storm, traditional music was rising above the devastation. On Mondays, red beans still boiled on the stove. Café du Monde had a banner proclaiming “Beignets are Back.” And as I sat on a bench on the battlefield and revisited the week in my mind, I thought: how do I share this profound experience, this new found realization with others?
I got back to Durham. I read everything I could find. I listened to musicians and genres that were foreign to me. Together with the rawness of my experience, the New Orleans class was born. A year later, in the spring of 2007, the inaugural class had to suffer through my attempts to share everything that I had learned using dense and wordy PowerPoint slides and drawn-out lectures. It was an act of love for me, but the mode of delivery must have been frustrating to them. At the same time, I worked with UNH-Alternative Break Challenge to organize several trips to work with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans over spring break. I invited my students to apply and join us.
Five of my students did just that and joined me with UNH-ABC; two others went to New Orleans separately during spring break. We stayed in Violet, LA and worked in the Upper Ninth Ward in and around what would become Musicians’ Village. I watched them work hard during the day. They met and talked to residents. They tapped their toes to music, they caught beads at parades, and they ate Creole food. They combined what we had learned in class with experience. It stuck. It had meaning. And they gained knowledge and understanding in a way that the other students in the class could not. A year later, I asked if the trip could become part of the class, half expecting for the answer to be no. But, I was pleasantly surprised; the trip has been a central part of the class ever since.
Now, the trip defines the class. Before the trip, I give them informational markers to provide reference for them once they get there. And while none of us have attained the fluency of a native, students have just enough history, culture, music, and language to be able to communicate. And boy, do they communicate. They talk to folks in the neighborhoods, the former gang member who recounts mayhem, as well as the great-grandmother who in late 2005 returned to a home in a neighborhood without power; to a City without an operating grocery store. They talk to the musicians about their craft, the waitress about her late, unfortunate incarceration, and they bring all of those conversations back to class. They process. They try to make sense of those threads and combine them with what they read in books and see in film. They make their own judgments. And ultimately, they learn.
And I get to watch the whole thing unfold; and learn with them.