Saturday, June 30, 2007

If only...

It's been a long week, and for most of it, I've been sitting Indian-style in a chair with my laptop. My online teaching job has been KICKING MY BUTT. In addition to responding to the nearly-constant submissions of my 13 reliable middle-school aged students, I've had to chase after two laggards. This is one reason why I am so happy to teach college and NOT middle school--if a college student doesn't show up or fails to do the work, I don't have to chase them down. I simply apply the standards to their work and performance, and they reap what they sow. When teaching middle-schoolers, though, you've got parental involvement to deal with, and I find the position it puts me in ethically questionable and down-right uncomfortable. Basically, I become the Customer Service Representative. I resent being put in that position. Especially because I care so deeply about my teaching.

My supervisor has told me that I should "write less," and she's right. But when I say I care deeply about teaching, I mean it. Not only does "writing less" mean that I may not be able to accomplish all I'd like to, it also requires a lot of skill. I haven't mastered the skill of offering perfectly-concise critiques of student-writing. My solution in the classroom has been to make very brief notes at the end of the essay which I then address in student conferences (also time consuming). Obviously this isn't possible in online teaching.

Anyway, I've been at it every day from 9 until 5, and I am STRESSED. The only break I got from teaching this week was the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (HCNA) meeting--which was uplifting and eventful. Among the highlights: the shared appreciation of this article chronicling the "green rebuilding" efforts in the Lower Nine, and a heated "discussion" (read: rant) on the subject of the Holy Cross School Board's decision to rent their modulars to the State's Recovery School District (RSD)--without consulting the neighborhood's residents.

The Holy Cross campus has yet to be gutted. Instead of gutting the buildings, the board decided to abandon ship, and so they brought in trailers and let the rest of the campus go. They'd already decided to move the school to Gentilly--a decision that will inevitably mean a much longer recovery-time for the Holy Cross neighborhood, and one whose motives appeared to be at least partly related to racial tensions between the mostly-white, upper-class private school and the mostly-black, lower-class Lower Nine. As you might expect, the board denies this. But when has white-flight ever been openly acknowledged in public spheres (unabashed racists aside)?

At any rate, the RSD school that will be housed in the trailers on the moldy campus is to be an "alternative school." At the HCNA meeting, a 31-year veteran of the Orleans Parish Public Schools (OPPS) explained that "alternative" is a politically-correct way of saying "a school for bad kids." They'll be students who have either not chosen or were too late in registering for other schools (I may not have mentioned that New Orleans is now a giant petri dish for the grant charter-school experiments so popular these days). They'll also be students who have been expelled from other schools. High school students. The attitude toward the students is epitomized by one HC resident's cry: "These kids are BAD." Another neighbor said, "You know, comparing the Holy Cross school to this alternative school is like apples and oranges. Holy Cross was the good kids. The alternative school? We don't want those kids around here."

As you might imagine, these complaints are hard for a young, idealistic teacher like me to hear. From what I gathered, my feelings are shared only by my husband and one other woman--a beautiful sister who graduated from Douglass. She said, "The way I see it, we can either see the kids' presence as an aberration to be ignored, or an opportunity to embrace them." This inspired poorly-disguised groans and harrumphs, and the rant continued:

"I'm not trying to say that these kids are a bunch of jail birds, but they are. They will set fire to their school and watch it burn. Hell, they'll set fire to their own house and sit on the stoop and watch that burn, too. These kids will do anything."

"We are living at Ground Zero here. These are the kids that nobody wants--that's why they're sending them down here."

I felt like crying. Instead, I stood up and introduced myself.

I was trembling I was so nervous. I was keenly aware of being This White Girl. This White Girl from across the canal, no less. I wasn't there before the storm, so what do I know? I teach at a University, so who do I think I am to speak on behalf of the kids of OPPS? My privilege, my age, my naive hope--who did I think I was to suggest that we could be "neighbors" to the school, that we could volunteer to tutor, or invite the kids to meetings, or say hello to them before they have a chance to burn our houses down. Who did I think I was?

"Truthfully," I said, "the idea of an alternative school in the neighborhood scares me, but I just feel like, I don't know, we can be angry and lock our doors and the shades, or we can do something else..." (real articulate.)

"We can confront our fears," Pam suggested.

I nearly shouted. "Yeah!"

Truthfully, I think that the issue is we have different ideas about confronting our fears. The 31-year veterans think we should be threatening grannies. The idealists think we should be kooky, loving aunts.

So I learned a bit more about my neighborhood this week.

Also, we got the second bid back, and it's too high. I am so sad about this I can hardly speak. To know that we--two degreed professionals--can't afford a 1200-square foot home in a devastated neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward tells me Something Is Seriously Wrong. In my opinion, the Preservation Resource Center (who's selling us the house) should eat more of a loss in order to get us in that home. The Operation Comeback Mission Statement reads: "Restored houses will be sold to low and moderate income buyers at attractive prices. Because post-Katrina construction costs make it difficult or impossible to repair homes at an affordable price, the Operation Comeback Revolving Fund will cover financing gaps of up $25,000 per buyer. Additionally, we have access to a small pool of HOME funds for low-income buyers and are strengthening ties with other non-profits to ensure buyers get the financial help they need to buy our houses. Returning New Orleanians need every bit of help they can get, and our discounts will help put them on the road to personal recovery." But they have told us they are only willing to take a 10K loss, which means we have to fork over at least 25K more than the initial estimated price.

We aren't quite sure what to do about this. We may have to lose some serious square footage. We will definitely not be able to have the welcoming porches from the original drawings. We're going to have a "demo-party" to remove the rear shed. We're going to have a yard sale. We're going to win the lottery.

What we're not going to do is be on This Old House. The sad news came today, and I am royally bummed. It appears that our story is not good enough. (Stephanie at the PRC put it perfectly: they come in from out of town with Our Stories already written; they don't tell our stories as they really are.) The fact that we weren't living in our house before the storm was the issue. I suspect it also had something to do with our being white and moving into a black neighborhood. Nobody wants to see a gentrification story.

Well, folks, this is my story, our story. It's messy, it ain't carefully proofread, and it's happier than what you may have had in mind. But that don't mean it's not worth telling.

So there, This Old House. You can take your $10,000 in appliances and shove 'em. (Gawd--if we'd had that money, maybe we could afford the house. How's that for a sob story, TV land? Sad enough for you?)

A final note: today was to be the sale date for our house. Oh, if only...

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