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CLASS ACTION

Katrina’s School Problem

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

During the first few days after Hurricane Katrina, we were staying at a bed-and-breakfast in the Avoyelles Parish town of Mansura. We were lucky to get a room since most of the people were relatives of the owners, including two sisters from the river parishes, who each brought their own family. A doctor from New Orleans was also there. At night she would do volunteer work in the emergency room at the Marksville Hospital.

From the two sisters, both of whom spoke with delightful Cajun accents, came a statement that I will always remember. That Wednesday after the levees broke we were all watching the destruction of New Orleans on a widescreen TV. “Every time I see that I want to cry,” one sister said. “Me too,” her sibling said, “but I am afraid if I start I will never stop.”

A couple of days later both were crying, but for a different reason. People may forget that, among the many troubles caused by Katrina, it came right when school had just started. Everywhere where there were refugees there were parents figuring out what to do with the kids and their schooling.

Predictions that the city might not be operative for at least six months aggravated the situation. Those who could tried to enroll their kids wherever they were or to make some other plan. In the case of one of the sisters, a relative in California had arranged for a high school-aged son to go to school there. So one morning the family gathered in the living room as a sister left to take the son to the Golden State, not knowing for how long. All of the family wept. For most schoolchildren, the year ahead held some sort of promise, maybe graduation, a prom or football Fridays. Now all of that was gone, and the kids were heading to another world filled with uncertainty.

In some cases it might have been for the best. A friend who was an education specialist was doing supervisory work in the Avoyelles Parish school system. She told me that many of the poor kids from New Orleans who were taken into the Avoyelles schools were seeing a different side of life. “Here you say ‘yes sir’ and yes ‘ma’am’ to the teachers and everyone wears their shirts tucked in with no droopy pants.” She said the kids from New Orleans were getting a level of supervision they had never had before. “They might be better off.”

Another family had two daughters who attended prestigious New Orleans high schools. Now the schools were closed. A Baton Rouge Catholic school took them in. Their parents, like many now dispersed across the region, now had to think about the long term. Should they buy a home in Baton Rouge, at least to get them through the year?

From one of the daughters came another statement I will never forget: “This is a hard time to be an adult.” She was right, of course.

An occasional tear may have provided some relief.

 

 

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