Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Progress and Our Old House

I watched "Live With Regis and Kelly" (broadcast from New Orleans) this morning before an early summer rain dumped inches upon inches on us in a matter of hours. The show was taped before the rain, on a steamy morning. I could see poor "Reg" wilting a bit in the heat and I was reminded of how it takes a different breed to live here.
I'd planned to leave this morning, and I was packed and ready to leave for a week in fully-functioning Atlanta, but the weather foiled me. So instead I travelled to the West Bank to eat Vietnamese food with a girlfriend of mine. After dinner we watched the "American Idol" finale (my friend exclaimed "Justice!" when Jordin won, but I have a soft spot for beat-boxing Blake... it must come from my years of growing a room away from all of my brother's DJ-ing), and then I came home and watched the news, where I learned of a literal "SIGN of progress" (this play on words was not lost on corny news writers, of course). Evidently a state senator raised a stink about the sign welcoming you to "New Orleag" from I-10 East. And finally, it's being fixed.

So when I return from my Atlanta trip, I'll return to New Orleans, not New Orleag.

Now, what does it say about me that I have a soft spot for that "New Orleag" sign, too?
I think it means New Orleans is my home.
Oh, and: Oooh, ooh, OOH!!!!!!...
I got an email yesterday from a producer for This Old House. Never in my wildest PBS-kid dreams would I have imagined that I would be on that show. In fact, I can clearly recall feeling tortured when my dad would watch that show (I felt like my parents were The Worst for not allowing me to watch commercial telvision back then). Now, I feel a certain amount of pride that Our House is no commercial Regis and Kelly house. Nuh-UH! Our house is Bob Villa fodder!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It's My Birthday

I couldn't decide on the right punctuation for the title of this post. "It's My Birthday!" doesn't suit my mood, but "It's My Birthday." looks too downtrodden. And while I'm a little blue about turning 31, I'm certainly not feeling downtrodden. So, "It's My Birthday", the end.

The thing is, I do feel like throwing the tiniest of tantrums because everyone's too busy for a birthday party, including my husband. And one can't plan their own birthday party, can one?

Well, I did. I sent out an email asking friends to join me at a bar for drinks after tonight's final Prime Time session, and all I've gotten are regrets. (I didn't send the message until yesterday--my dumb fault for not knowing what I wanted to do.) I don't really want drinks at a bar, though. I want a kiddie birthday party. I want to feel that excited feeling I did way back when (and even up until my 25th). Here's what I wanted: my friends Anthony and Claire to swoop in and throw me a birthday party!!! Claire? Anfernee? I miss you!) Instead, I am just a plain ol' year older.

I'm also a year married. Simon and I celebrated our first anniversary this weekend with dinner at Bacchanal and a stay at the Lookout Inn--a B&B that I highly, highly recommend, if you can wrangle a local's discount (the place is pricey). I don't think I've been a very good wife this year. I think I need to do more of that "Do unto others" whatnot. Sometimes I can be quite a mean ol' nag.

So I'm writing now to declare that birthday party or no, I want this year to be happier, lighter, and less difficult, and I want to feel like I have the power to control that. I wonder if it's possible, in our city.

My cat is sunning on the TV tray in front of me. The ladies are fighting about Bush on "The View." I am going to finish my coffee and get ready for some errand running--cell phone buying, post-office going, whatever-else-ing. Maybe I'll bake some cupcakes for my damn self.

Happy birthday to me! . ? !%@!&#^(&#@(*#!@!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Spectacular Failures

This morning I submitted my students' grades. It's always very hard for me to dole out F's--and to my writing students, in particular. While I spend a lot of time over the course of the semester trying to explain to them that assessing writing is not the same thing as assessing effort (there are no "A's for effort"), I find the "F's" as ugly as my students do, when it comes right down to it.

So I send out encouraging emails to each of my students who has failed. I explain what they had failed to do in terms of producing effective essays. I offer advice for how they might approach the subject differently the second time around. I tell them that, yes, it is, in fact painful for me to give F's to students whom I've come to know, personally. I say things like, "Still, if you really wish to become a better writer--as I know you do--you will see this as a reflection of your work, not as a reflection of you."

Of course, many times those two things are inextricably linked. My most "spectacular failures" sometimes come from some of my students with the brightest minds. They have wonderful ideas--ideas over which they fret, ideas which sometimes appear to torture them and give them anxiety--but they lack discipline. I can relate to these kids. Fortunately, I've never been as challenged in the mechanics of writing as they are. I watched as one of my brightest students this semester thought himself repeatedly into writer's block. He'd tap and tap and tap his leg when an in-class essay came along. Then, when there were twenty or so minutes left, he'd throw up a mess that had at its heart one or two duper-smart ideas. This student was devastated to learn that he failed. But instead of blaming me (as my less-bright students do...), he attached a "letter of reflection" in which he explained to his "readers" that he had only himself to blame for having failed them.

The less-bright students have a different sort of spectacular failure. They go out kicking and screaming and finger-pointing. I had a few of them this semester. In every case I'd warned them at midterms that there was a better than even chance that they'd fail the course. And still they sent emails (with no salutation and ususally in IM text: "how could i flai when u said i ws doing btter?") implying that I was somehow to blame. I inevitably want to strangle these kids. Yesterday I sent a reply to one of them explaining how the "blame" was placed squarely on his shoulders--and reminding him that his hostile email illustrated an ongoing problem with his writing: a lack of audience awareness. HAHAHAHA!!!

It felt good to do that.

Now that I have submitted my grades, I am faced with summer. I know that I am supposed to be excited about this, but for a few reasons I'm not. For starters, I don't do well with unstructured time. There's a reason I can empathize with my bright students who lack self-discipline (and who take failure particularly hard). I sleep too late. I don't exercise. I look around at all of the things I need to do. I feel overwhelmed. I sleep again. It's not good. Maybe this summer I will try to do something self-helpy, like making a list of some sort. Oprah would approve.

Also, there is the heat. While we have The Most Amazing and Beautiful Winters here in New Orleans, we teachers work straight through them (yes--weekends are often included). So once summer hits and I'm free to enjoy the outdoors, it's too hot to enjoy them.

Finally, there's the whole living her post-K bit on top of it all. And it's remarkable (or not?) how little has changed since those first weeks of our return. Sure, the Red Cross truck is gone. The power outages have (finally) stopped (though I worry about articulating that in writing--I don't want to jinx it). The loss of friends to other cities is less hard, too (until you've had two margaritas and a beautiful song comes on).

What hasn't changed, though, is the landscape. It is still so scarred. There are still so many f-ing trucks rumbling around, driven by aggressive men. The pile of debris on the corner is cleared and then immediately replaced by another. The mayor promises change and none comes. Neighbors who want to return still can't. And even our own journey toward home-ownership has hit a roadblock in the form of exorbitant construction costs. Finally, there's the knowledge that even when we do move to our new home in Holy Cross, there will be no guarantee that we will not flood.

Today's NYTimes editorial covered aspects of this "Spectacular Failure":

May 15, 2007


In Divided New Orleans

When President Bush spoke to the nation soon after Hurricane Katrina, he was resolute that the city would be rebuilt. “We will do what it takes,” he said. We — the federal, state and city governments; elected officials and the citizens who hire them — have failed spectacularly.

Homes and schools remain empty or imaginary; evacuees and survivors wait in cramped trailers, unable to return or rebuild. A huge silence still hangs over the Lower Ninth Ward, a place every American should see, to witness firsthand how truckloads of promises have filled New Orleans’s vast devastation with nothing.

That the Lower Ninth is overwhelmingly black is not irrelevant. African-Americans were the predominant and poorest members of this city before the storm, they bore the worst of it and have the farthest journey back to stability. A study issued last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation, based on interviews last fall with residents of Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, maps the outlines of a sharp racial divide.

In Orleans Parish, twice as many African-Americans as whites said their lives were still “very” or “somewhat” disrupted. Seventy-two percent of blacks said they had problems getting health care, compared with 32 percent of whites. Blacks were more likely to say that their financial status, physical and mental health, and job security had worsened since the storm. And they expressed considerably more anxiety than whites about the sturdiness of the rebuilt levees, the danger from future Katrinas and the prospect of living without enough money or health care, or a decent, affordable home.

There was a consensus about broad categories of the recovery: solid majorities thought there had been at least some progress in restoring basic services, reopening schools and business and fixing levees. But in three vital areas — rebuilding neighborhoods, controlling crime and increasing the supply of affordable housing — most agreed that there had been no progress or “not too much.”

Even with the constant trickle of bad news, you can find minimal improvements. Thousands of building permits have been issued. A crisis was recently averted when the Bush administration extended temporary housing assistance for tens of thousands of displaced families. Some government housing subsidies that were to expire at the end of August will continue until March 2009.

It is also encouraging that administration of the housing program will shift from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has always been the logical choice, given its experience in housing needy families. Other positive signs include the halting progress toward a workable redevelopment plan, and a recent finding that the city’s population had grown to above half of its level before the storm.

The Kaiser survey even found signs of hope when it tested for resilience in a proud city. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they were optimistic about New Orleans’s future. And only 11 percent said they planned to leave.

Their faith must not be betrayed. Residents in the survey were keenly aware that their city’s fitful recovery would be devastated if the levees failed again. They put strong levees above all other priorities, including fighting crime and even basic services like electricity and water. And yet National Geographic has reported that an engineer has found signs that levees were poorly rebuilt and are already eroding. There is no room for error here.


This evening, I will feel the racial divide the NYTimes editorial mentions when I go back to John Dibert elementary to talk to a large group of African-American parents (mostly mothers) and children about books.

The racial divide has been hard for me within that setting.

The kids love me. They climb my legs. They play with my hair. They tell me I'm pretty and ask me if I'll come over and spend the night.

The mothers, however, seem wary of me. They rarely engage with me, and I find that I have to "win them over"--but carefully. Excessive kindness is transparent and can lead to just as much distrust as distance. I feel like I have to reinvent myself--prove that I'm not threatening (but can that even, ever, be true?)

Last week I was told by the site coordinator that some parents felt I'd talked down to them.

That broke my heart.

Granted, the site coordinator is sort of the Mama Bear of that school, and I think she sees me as some baby-faced "scholar" who lives and works in an Ivory Tower (if only she knew what teaching at UNO was really like!) I have to prove myself to her, too.

I am so tired of having to prove myself as a teacher.

Anyways, tonight we are reading a "Go West" story that focuses on a black family in what is typically portrayed as a white story of westward movement during the pioneers' era. The questions that the handbook suggests I ask focus on whether the journey would have been more or less possible for a white family, and on whether the story is more or less important as a uniquely African-American story. It's going to be a tough book for me to discuss without my feeling completely self-conscious. And yet I can't help thinking that this book may allow me to cross the divide between Them and Me. I hope so...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The ONLY reason we aren't anxious to get into our new home...

I read two pieces today about levee vulnerability in the Lower Ninth Ward. Obviously we are concerned. While the house-stuff has begun to feel like it's just taking FOR-EVER, we're not sad that we won't be in it this summer. We'd like to see another hurricane season pass--perhaps even have the system tested with a 2--before we begin our new life in the Lower Ninth.

What makes me even more annoyed is how there will be no question about rebuilding the devastated Kansas town, or about reinforcing levees in now-flooded areas of Missouri and Oklahoma, but just you wait... there will be some whose comments in response to the Times-Pic piece I read will suggest that we should just move.

What is it about our brief American memory that we can so simply dismiss an historic city? I get more angry about folks from the outside saying, "Not with my tax dollars," while simultaneously giving a hoot about their dollars being funnelled to Iraq. WHERE ARE OUR PRIORITIES??!?!?!?

Anyways, here's the reading from the Times-Pic (surely you'll see the comments soon enough--scroll to the end):

And from the National Geographic:

What you can do:


Write letters.

Don't forget us.

Friday, May 04, 2007

When it rains...

Last night I woke up to heavy, heavy rain, and so much lightning I could see as I walked to the kitchen to peek out the front door shade. I was checking on our car. When in it rains hard here, and for a long time, the pumps sometimes can't keep up. The catch-drain that's in front of the house next to us is ALWAYS clogged with debris. And I'm sorry, but it's not something you can simply clean out with a garden rake. We're talking sheetrock and insulation and years of yellowed plastic cups from the bar on the corner (Gawd, that BAR! I cannot wait to leave that behind...)

At any rate, the car was fine, so I went back to bed and snuggled with my little cat, Ray, for a while. He was spooked and slept, nugget-style, in the nook of my armpit.

When Simon woke me before he left for work, the rain had stopped, but it was yucky, and so was my mood. When I got to school, I was in an even worse mood; several students were waiting at my office door, asking for help with their writing. I'd had a conference sign-up sheet on my door all week, and I'd had conference after conference--many times several conferences withe the same panicked student who'd panicked too late--all week. Now, some of the same students wanted me to "look over their papers" again, and this was an hour before their final portfolios were DUE.

I was livid, and I let them know. I don't like it when I reveal my frustration and anger, but this time I just couldn't help pointing out that asking me to help them on essays that are due in AN HOUR might not be the best approach.

But I helped them, anyway.

I use conferences heavily in my teaching, and it's one of the things that I life to think makes me a good teacher. By the end of the semester, I really KNOW my students. Kevin brought by his girlfriend to meet me (Kevin may not pass, and he knows it, but this is why I feel good about my teaching--even the students who are failing don't seem to hold it against me). John asked if he could buy me a margarita when it was "all over". Maria asked if I was going to Jazz Fest. And Jessica, who suffers from dyslexia and who has really struggled, offered me a gift certificate to her father's fine-dining restaurant. I took it, even as I told her she'd failed her last essay and would need to revise, and I was all excited about eating at this place until Simon suggested it might not be ethical. Now, he brings home cookies and mugs and useless crap at Christmas time, but I can't enjoy a meal? Sigh... I don't know what I'll do with the certificate... Can't a sister eat a meal?!
Anyway, while I waited for the portfolios to come in, I tooled around on the Internet and discovered that I have been posted on I'd rather not have the chili pepper. I've said again and again that I feel like my appearance (and my age) is a disadvantage in the classroom. College-aged boys look at me all "hot for teacher," so I have to work hard to be as professorial-looking and distant from them as possible; and I find that I have to work at being "non-threatening" to some of my female students. Yeah, I know: poor, pretty me. Well, I'm here to tell you that being a pretty teacher is NOT a good thing.

As I trolled the 'Net, the weather got worse and worse. At one point, the foreign-language professors gathered out in the hallway, chattering in Spanish and French. the doors were blowing open, and the power flickered. An hour later, when the weather calmed, I left for my car, but had to turn around. Campus was flooded.

Once the pumps had caught up an hour later, I left and headed down to Holy Cross to check on flooding on our street. As I'd suspected, the street was flooded, a full two hours after the rain. The rest of the streets were fine, so it appears our house is in a mini-bowl--or that there are some major drainage issues. I took pictures. Here they are:

Tomorrow I hope the sun is out. I have plans to go to Jazz Fest, and to make margaritas at Matt's house for Porch Fest and Cinco de Mayo. I am so glad that the end of the school year is in sight. I can't be too celebratory, though; Simon still has several more weeks of Middle School hell.