If it weren't for Ms. Last's visit to my classroom, I don't know how long I would've let my students carry on. "What's going on in here?" she asked as she closed our decorated door. I could barely hear her over the drone of heartache. Small sniffles had escalated into an Emmy Award-winning drama, but more than half of them were genuinely hurting. I half-smiled, half-wrinkled my brow towards Ms. Last and then at the 30 little bodies who were sprawled in every direction on our "sharing carpet."
"Alright, everybody, now that we've shared our connections, we can return to our seats. Makayla will pass out some tissue to those children who are seated quietly. We'll write about this story and the connections that we have into our journals."
I had Devon seated on my lap, his head was hidden in the crook of my neck and his tears had dampened the lapel of my blouse. He hadn't even looked up when Ms. Last walked in.
"Devon, you need to get up now, baby. Everything's OK. No one's going to hurt you." I hated to make promises to my students that I couldn't keep.
A few students walked over to Ms. Last to hug her before returning to their seats. "What's the matter with my little sweeties?"
When Devon finally somberly separated from me, I started towards Ms. Last, shaking my head.
"Ms. Last, I'm so sorry, were we that loud?"
"I heard y'all from next door. What's going on?"
"Well, we had some pretty strong feelings about the story we just read. There were some genuine criers and then we shared our connections to the story and that kinda broke the dam."
"What was the story ... hey ... Ms. Tandy, were you crying, too?"
I shrugged, "Yeah, it was pretty sad in here." Teachers are supposed to remain calm and together in front of their students. This class was with me for the second year. We were "looping" (in which students stay with one teacher for more than one school year), and we all knew each other very well. They knew that no one cried alone in my presence, and on this day there were some crocodile tears, but it was easy to tell the real thing.
"What happened?" Ms. Last is our social worker and was concerned about all of us.
Before I answered her, I switched the lights off and on and the students settled down and continued to write in their open journals. Makayla placed the tissue box back on top of our bookshelf, taking one more before she sat down.
"We read a story about this little girl whose grandmother passed away. We always share our connections to stories."
"Oh, right. That's the text-to-self stuff you were telling me about?"
"That's part of it. When we were done, almost every kid shared that he or she knew someone who had passed away."
"Awww. Poor babies."
"It's not just that. More than a dozen of them told me how their uncle, cousin, dad had been shot. Trey's cousin was on the news last week, that teenage girl who was shot.
Kwan's grandmother was killed during a robbery, and he just spilled it all out to us just now."
"Little, quiet Kwan?" She searched the room for him.
"Yes, can you believe that? I'd never seen anything like it. He was pounding the desk next to him, shouting, "Someone's gonna pay. She didn't have to die like that."
"Are you serious?"
"It was heart-breaking. Look at him, he's writing furiously."
Kwan was still breathing heavily, gasping sporadically. His bloodshot eyes wouldn't stray from his journal.
"Trish, we had a mock news report during our rainy-day recess yesterday and all the kids wrote reports about the murders in different neighborhoods. When we wrote our K-W-L of New Orleans, murder was the third on the list."
"I know. We had a murder two blocks from my house two weeks ago."
"It's getting out of hand. Something's gotta give."
Some students were finishing their entries and beginning to fidget. It doesn't take long in second grade.
Ms. Last sensed this, too, and announced, "I'm so glad you guys are OK. I didn't know what had happened in here. If anyone wants to visit Ms. Last during recess next week, make sure you get a pass from your teacher, OK?"
Almost all of their hands shot up.
"OK, ask me on Monday, guys." I responded and thanked Ms. Last.
When she was free, Ms. Last allowed students to visit her room to color and relax to avoid the constant arguments and fights that ensued on the playground.
Once the students were finished writing, we began our math lesson. While they boisterously manipulated tiles and snap cubes, I kept thinking about the service learning project or the community outreach or the letters to the mayor that we could work on as a class to do something about our city's demise.
I walked over to Kwan. Teachers are not supposed to kiss their students. I planted one right on the top of his head. His back was slumped and he was sniffling. I took his journal and saw that he had drawn a picture of his grandmother inside of a casket. There were crosses all over the paper and three people crying. I could tell which one was him. He stood between his mom and his sister, a former student of mine, and his words filled the rest of the page:
"I made a conecshin because my mom crid win my mawmaw dide. She dint hav to diy. The bad men shot her. Thars to much kilin in New Orlins. I hate it. She dint hav to diy."
I kneeled down next to him and whispered, "I hate it, too, baby." A knot grew in my throat as I spoke. New Orleans is my hometown. We were watching it go to hell in a hand-basket. The lights turned off and on, and I looked over to see Kevin with one hand on his hip. "It's getting' too loud in here," he warned. The class quieted down. I smiled and felt a tapping on my shoulder.
Makayla passed me that one last tissue, "This is for Kwan."
The students' spirits lifted after math. It was Friday, which meant someone brought snack for the class. The school year had just begun, but because we were looping, there wasn't the usual beginning-of-the-school-year, getting-to-know-you lull. My kids were quite acquainted and were in full force. Thank God the light switch trick still worked.
When the dismissal bell rang, we headed out of the door to the 95-degree day. Squinting in the sunlight, I tried to wave goodbye to the usual collection of parents and van drivers. "Have a nice weekend!" I yelled. I sent the rest of my kids to the after-school program. I told them I'd see them on Monday. That was the last time I saw them. I haven't seen any of their little faces in more than 10 weeks.
No one even talked about the hurricane in the Gulf that day. No one. Not in the teacher's lounge. Not during duty.
A week later I watched CNN from my friend's parents' home in Alabama. The same people who robbed my students of their innocence and safety shot at rescue helicopters, attacked defenseless, downtrodden women, stole electronics despite the lack of bare necessities. I prayed that none of my students were in the Superdome or the Convention Center. I watched the coverage with one eye closed. When I couldn't handle it anymore, I ran to the bedroom and sobbed like Kwan, fists slammed on the pillow. It didn't have to happen this way. Someone's gonna pay.
Over the weeks, through text messages, I discovered that everyone in my biological family was safe. One day, I received a message from an unknown number.
"R U OK?"
"Yes, who R U?"
It was Kevin's mom. They were in Houston in a hotel. They told me that two other of my students were in Houston, too. They saw them at the grocery store. I was thrilled to hear this update, but that left 27 unaccounted for. A few days later, I received an email from Trina's family. Baton Rouge. They finally found some people from their fellowship to house them.
I still haven't heard from 26 of my students. Their contact numbers are in my roll book, which is somewhere in my now-mold-infested classroom. I don't know where they are, but each night I pray that they are safe. Since my return to New Orleans, it feels safer here than it has been in a long time. The news reports the weather, levee breach issues, restructuring, rebirth. There have been only a few murders since Katrina in the New Orleans area recently.
Citizens of Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio warn women not to go out after dark. Store owners now keep handguns in close proximity. They're scared of the new population. Well, I have a connection to that. Welcome to Kwan's world. Welcome to the world of the children of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Now, it follows them. They can't displace it.
The Senate's approval of $1.6 billion for all schools that have taken in displaced children is a step in the right direction. These kids, now more than ever, deserve adequate supplies and functioning facilities. The Senate also agreed to allocate $450 million for start-up schools in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. The financially strapped New Orleans public school system voted to create charter schools in the operable school buildings in New Orleans, and if the Legislature agrees with Gov. Kathleen Blanco, only 13 schools will remain under local control. Blanco calls this a "historic opportunity that we have to start anew, to create an environment for a new birth of excellence and opportunity for children and their families."
Whether those schools are charter schools, state-run, or locally controlled, they need to be better, much better than they were so that our children don't end up like the ones failed by the broken system, those whose choices were limited, who resort to other means. This is an important issue for all of us. When it comes down to it, we're all connected.
- Donn Young
"I still haven't heard from 26 of my students. Their contact numbers are in my roll book, which is somewhere in my now-mold-infested classroom. I don't know where they are, but each night I pray that they are safe."