I never thought it would come to this. Ten years ago this week, I traveled to New Orleans for the first time following the flooding wrought by Katrina. I spent a week with eleven strangers gutting houses in Chalmette, Louisiana. It was dirty, sweaty, heart-wrenching, and sometimes stomach-churning work. It was the best work I ever hated and it changed me forever.
For the most, I spent the evenings, exhausted and contemplative. A great American city nearly destroyed and, in March 2006, who could guess what its future held. However, its storied past was inviolable. I spent several evenings, on a bench among the graves of Civil War era, African-American soldiers at the storm-ravaged Chalmette National Cemetery. On the open expanse in front of me, Andrew Jackson and a diverse army of militiamen, Creoles, free blacks, and Native Americans, defeated the British Army, replete with men who had vanquished Napoleon. What stories could that flooded soil before me, from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi to the Seventeenth Street Canal, tell Americans about our past…and our future. Those ruminations gave birth to the New Orleans class.
When I got back to New Hampshire, I began laying the groundwork for the New Orleans course. I read as much as a could, listened intently, and tried to fill myself with knowledge about this mesmerizing city. It was not easy. It was not linear. It seldom made sense. But the was glorious.
In January 2007, I stood in front of 25 students in the very first New Orleans class. Unlike today’s students, they had with a mature level of cognition watched as the horrific events of August/September 2005 unfolded on the evening news. The tragedy was still warm. The images were still etched in our collective minds. And New Orleans’ future still hung in the balance. Nevertheless, they were subjected to my pedantic and text heavy PowerPoint presentations, yet they survived in good cheer.
Seven of my students travelled with me to the Gulf Coast that year. It was not yet part of the course, but I saw in their eyes the importance of being there. Of hearing the stories. Of seeing the damage. And of absorbing the culture through their eyes, their ears, their tastebuds, and their pores. Through their service and their experience they connected with something the rest of the class did not. And they were the better for it.
I was asked to teach the course again and in saying “yes,” I asked if the service learning trip could be made part of the course. And to my surprise, I was told by the forward thinking head of the Honors program, which served as a part-time home for the class, “of course.”
And I ran with it. It has not been easy. Initially, I depended upon a student organization to do most of the heavy lifting for organizing the trip, but in due time we both realized that we were at cross purposes. More recently, I am running the trip on my own with some excellent support from the College of Liberal Arts Dean’s Office, their Business Service Center, and the aforementioned Honors Program.
In the meantime, we have worked with number of different agencies in such places as New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, Slidell, LA and Waveland MS. We have slept in condemned schools, abandoned homes, condemned orphanages, churches, and community centers. We have worked with Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities, and most recently, lowernine.org. But ten years after the storm, the spirit and the love and the joy of the residents still move us. It is the greatest gift that we can receive.
So this, the 10th New Orleans class, will have to stand beside the rest, and in some respects, that will be tough. Students will heading down by four minivans on Friday, March 11th and should be arriving on Saturday afternoon. We will try to cram as much culture in before we embark on a week of service. But among the sights and sound, the food and the music, it will be the goodwill and appreciation of the people of places like the Lower Ninth Ward that will find a place closest to our hearts. And I can’t wait.
It has been over ten years since Katrina. This will be my fourteenth trip to New Orleans since then. Including this year’s trip, I will have accompanied some 250 UNH students on their journey to help people far different from them. I have witnessed their joy, their recognition, and their growth in the process.
As I write this, I try to picture what I would have thought, back in March 2006, if I knew then then what I know now. New Orleans, along with its constant and new challenges, has survived until the next storm. Could I imagine teaching this course for the tenth time and getting something new and affirming out of each class? And would I, knowing the time that it takes, not just to keep the class and assignments fresh, but to budget, to plan travel, to secure housing, to guarantee work slots, to plan events, etc., be willing to keep it going. Here. Ten years out. I have but one answer to that: you bet.
But, I never thought it would come to this.