Graduation at University of New Hampshire was this past Saturday and I had a chance to say goodbye to a number of former students. It also marked the end of the spring semester and the close of the eighth installment of the New Orleans class. For the past couple of years I’ve been on the lookout to see if the class became old hat to me or if I would tire of annual trips where I spend a good deal of time herding college students. Neither has come to pass.
I can accept some credit for that, as I constantly tinker with readings, assignments and course topics. The students also help, as each class has its own personality and just enough challenges to keep me on my toes. And then, there’s New Orleans itself, which has shown great promise and progress, but still displays the dysfunction and trials that haunted it prior to Katrina. Thus the City remains a mutable tapestry of wonder, beauty, and unapologetic chaos.
The trip to New Orleans over Spring Break is the centerpiece of the course. The weeks prior are concentrated on providing a basis of knowledge for the trip: the geography; history; music and culture; literature; and its own special language, or more correctly, languages. I call it “New Orleans boot camp,” grueling, but rewarding when it’s over. It provides the factual pegs upon which students can hang their experiences once they get back to New England. The second half of the class provides the opportunity to meld the facts with these experiences. We use them analyze what we saw, what we experienced, and use them to interpret for ourselves both the wonders and harsh realities of New Orleans. What may have been romanticized before the trip is tempered by stark truths. However, most students still come to the end of semester with a love for the City.
As much as the trip is central to the course, it seemed even more so this year. Previous classes have worked in neighborhoods from the Upper Ninth to Carrollton, as well as in Slidell, LA and Waveland, MS. And we almost always stayed at locations distant from the work site. This year, we had the opportunity to work with lowernine.org. About a third of our group stayed there and the rest at nearby All Souls Episcopal Church. For the most part, our work was but a few blocks away in the Lower Ninth. Students generally find the work rewarding and eye-opening, but if their trip journals are a good indicator, which I think they are, this experience was a game changer. They undoubtedly embraced the sights and sounds of the French Quarter, but afterwards they returned to the blight, the potholes, and the poverty. When they returned to family and friends who asked: “What were you doing there? Isn’t it fixed yet?” they had answers buoyed by fact and steeped in experience. That is why we will be returning to the Lower Ninth next spring.
And no, a week is not enough, but that is all we have. I return home every year regretful of the many things that they didn’t see: a parade on St. Charles; Audubon Park; Super Sunday; St. Joseph’s Day; the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s; or a steaming hot Domilise’s oyster po-boy. I always vow to do better, but time and calendar always conspire to thwart me. Then, there’s the challenge of getting thirty students from two different locations, to one spot, on time. In addition, most of the students are underage, which in the new “improved” New Orleans, means they are unable to take in Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile or Rebirth at the Maple Leaf. And to paraphrase the old World War I expression: “How do you get them to Magazine Street once they’ve seen Bourbon?”
But I have learned that every year I get everyone back to New Hampshire safe and sound, it is indeed a good year. And this one certainly had some highlights for the class:
- Second-lining on a Sunday afternoon;
- An evening with Paul Sanchez, Arsene DeLay, and Vance Vaucresson in Gentilly;
- Meeting with Ronald Lewis (and his granddaughters) at his House of Dance and Feathers on Tupelo Street;
- the French Quarter Treasure Hunt;
- Zydeco Night at the Rock and Bowl; and
- Saturday morning at the French Market and on Royal Street.
I stayed a few days later, so I had an opportunity at add to my list of highlights. These included: Super Sunday; meeting JoAnne Guidos at her Kajun’s Pub; attending jazz mass; getting to the know the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth; the Dirty Dozen at Tipitina’s; St. Joseph’s Night; the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade; attending the New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling competition at One-eyed Jack’s; going to a St. Joseph’s altar at a bar; and, of course, the aforementioned Domilise’s po-boy.
This is long-winded way of saying: “It doesn’t get old.” In fact, I’ll be back to New Orleans for a conference in August, but even when I’m there, I’ll still be looking forward to next year’s class and trip over Spring Break.