In this post, I discuss the observations that I have made while volunteering at my daughter’s school. Some of the observations were disturbing, some disheartening, and just plain frightening to me, not only as a mother, but someone relatively new to the “public school system” in New Orleans. I’ve been in the unique situation to speak to both teachers and parents about the apparent disconnect between school, staff, parent, and child and really wanted to do something about it¹ and I created a proposal to start a Parent Association at my daughter’s school. I even volunteered my efforts to its creation and implementation.
I spent a great deal of time researching urban education models and parent associations and the comparisons of a parent association to the PTO/PTA model. I also spend a great deal of time researching the effectiveness of parent associations, particularly in urban communities and in communities that are under-funded, unfortunately something that generally goes hand-in-hand. This isn’t a concept new to the school, as it was mentioned previously by a school social worker and the principal to meet with them about getting this going. Currently, our school has nothing – no PTO, no parent association, nor a parent teacher liason that actually does their job. ²
I received a response yesterday denying the creation of my proposed parent assocation. I was told that an administrator would have to be involved and that currently, the school was not ready for this internally.
You have a parent here who is trying to make a difference in your school, reduce the complaints of staff being over-worked, and helping parents, teachers, and students be on the same path for a better education and you are denying the creation of such a powerful tool? Come again? It has nothing to do with budget. This parent association wouldn’t require one single cent of the school’s funding.
My proposed parent association would not be a fund-raising effort. There needs to be a base of support outside of school administration for parents and children before fund-raising could even be considered, and in an urban area full of crime like New Orleans, I don’t think selling candy bars is really a great idea. That point was met with agreement, actually. Essentially, the proposal included real support for students and teachers like a homeroom parent³, school-wide newsletter produced regularly informing parents on important things like days off from school well in advance, progress the school is making, and upcoming events. Currently, parents are given a note a few days before school is scheduled to be out, the date of LEAP test hasn’t been communicated, and we have no idea why there are people walking around the school with blue prints and visitor passes. Weekly newsletters from teachers letting parents know what will be expected for homework the coming week, so there can be no excuses of not knowing what the homework assignments are for, or letting parents know of class achievements and recognition of students doing well that week. If it were not for the fact that I volunteer in my daughter’s classroom, I would not know most of the children in her class. Quite frankly, I believe that is tragic.
Small steps that could mean so much.
Do schools REALLY want parents to get involved, as they cheer-lead in orientations before school starts, or do they really want to be in charge of it all and hope that parents will simply comply with the status quo?
School by Supertramp
1. Because I am foolish and have this whole save the world to make it a better place complex.
2. The same staff member I talking about smacking her child aside the head.
3. Something the school sent sign up forms for in September and have yet to do anything about the information they collected.
Last Sunday I was mugged in what I considered one of the safest places to be in this city. It has left me paranoid, hopeless, angry, pissed off, and determined to not let some jerk-off run me out of this city. Many will say this is foolish of me, this determination to stay and fight, but they just don’t get it. This isn’t just a place to live. This isn’t just a city. This is New Orleans, dammit, and that MEANS something – regardless of how foolish our mayor behaves or what work is still left to do. It’s like a greek organization – from the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.
So, instead of going to the book club on Sunday like I intended (Sorry Elizabeth!) I ended up sitting in my home, on the couch, near fetal position, jumping at every noise, waiting for my husband to get home. I spent a lot of Monday like that too. And Tuesday. Yesterday morning I picked myself and wrote a proposal for my daughter’s school, hoping to set up a Parent Association, which will hopefully turn into a PTO at some point. I set up a few shows to cover. Scheduled a couple of interviews. Did some writing. Tried to make things as normal as they could.
I am taking it easy for the rest of the week. I am starting to get a case of the respiratory virus going around and for me, that’s not good. So, I shall stay inside my bat cave and read. This is my happy place. It would be a happier place with a Snuggie, but alas, no Snuggie yet. Though I did get told my a friend of a friend that they are itchy and like cheap felt, not fleece. Am tempted to go to Wal-Greens and feel for myself.
Nothing really interested or entertaining going on, except trying to make it through what happened on Sunday.
And listening to music. Eyehatgod, Black Flag, The Smithereens, The Misfits, and The Ramones.
I remember the day that my husband and I loaded up our car and moved South. Both of us had been entangled in really bad marriages previous to one another – his dealing with a manipulative gold digger – mine dealing with an abusive control freak. His ended years before mine did, mine ended soon after my mother died, when I fled my former family home with nothing but a garbage bag with clothes in it, staying from couch-to-couch for a few weeks here and there, until I found a very, very modest apartment that I could afford on the minimum wage salary I was making, a consequence of being a stay-at-home mother for far too long to be taken seriously in the workforce.
We left Wisconsin on a hope and a dream, planning to reclaim our individual lives, planting the seed of what would become our collaborative life. We loaded our little car up with all those things we cherished – books, photos, music, a kick ass sound system, and our clothes – and hit the road for a twenty-two hour car ride, without stops, to land in New Orleans. This had been one of the most impulsive decisions I have made in my life, one necessary if I were to ever have peace from the demon that haunted my life for a decade. We stayed in a boarding house, not wanting to have an obligation to a lease for a house in a neighborhood that we knew nothing about, and shortly we moved into a house, furnishing it little-by-little, until we made it a home. When the children joined us, as planned, the rebuilding of our life was complete. A little piece of that was swept away, however, when it was ordered in Wisconsin that my youngest two would have to split time between New Orleans and Wisconsin with a father that placed a call once every few months, but who had an attorney (and his future father-in-law) that was not only of the state of Wisconsin family law committee, but also the Godfather to the Court Commissioners oldest child. Add into that equation the refusal to hear Louisiana-based testimony, and you have a situation bound to cause heartache.
We adjusted, though, my oldest daughter enjoying becoming an only child for most of the year. We got involved in her school. We laughed. We cried. We went through really hard times. We dealt with my health issues, an intrusive mother-in-law a few beads short of a full necklace, and my daughter’s Asperger Syndrome. In many ways, it has been an adventure, really starting out as a young couple, ready to conquer the world. In many ways we are still that young couple, with my husband searching for a job that utilizes his law degree, and me waiting patiently to take the Para Pro test to get a job in the RSD as a Teacher Assistant, and then, one day a teacher.
Those who know me tell me how strong I am, amazed at the things I have lived through to talk about, proud of holding my head up high, not allowing myself to be a victim or to make excuses, but accepting life for what it has been, and always holding onto hope. They have given me credit for my emotional strength, the quiet grace I hold myself in when things seem the darkest. They have admired that when life has demanded it, I have rallied and fought, winning in one way or another.
I’m not exactly sure of the answer so early this morning, as I ready my daughter to begin another day at public school, a school I wish she didn’t go to, but am thankful it is one of the better ones if she has to. I wonder if this is my failure or if it is a testament to my naive-nature, simply being happy with what I have and not longing for a whole lot more. It is an attitude instilled into me at a young age by my Irish father and my English mother, something they wanted to appear in their only American-born child, so she never forgot where she came from, so she never became like the children of their friends – spoiled and thankless, feeling entitled, forgetting the importance of family.
I sit here on the sidelines of my life this morning, after experiencing a truly traumatic event, and wonder if it is really that I am strong, or that I have done what I have needed to do to survive. Is it really that I am content with the little things, or am I merely complacent as to not have any hopes dashed to the floor when they are not realized by life, only little longings in my mind? Or perhaps I am simply thinking too much this morning, a direct consequence from experiencing a violation in the place I escaped with high hopes and dreams for a different life, a better life, a happier life and little to no sleep.
Recently, I spent an extra day volunteering in my daughter’s classroom. I arrived and nine and stayed until school dismissal, helping with the lessons of the day, explaining new vocabulary words, trying to correct bad habits like “We be doing this lesson, Mrs. M”, and generally observing. I love my time in the classroom with the kids. I really do.
That being said, while wondering the halls and inside the class, there are a few observations that I made that were disturbing to me. I know if I have observed them, others have as well. If others have observed them, why aren’t they as shocked as I am?
1. I observed teachers text messaging while walking their students down the hall, in the middle of classes, and while students waited to ask their teachers questions. This didn’t happen in the classroom I was in, as the teacher felt the same way about this as I did, however it was happening enough for me to notice and to be highly annoyed.
2. I heard one teacher share personal information with the class about one of her students. The door was open, so anyone passing by could have heard this as well. It dealt with the children confessing to abuse at home, and now the police were getting involved. This should be a good thing, right? Well, according to this teacher it is not, and she instructed her students to not tell anyone anything that happens at home because you could easily be taken away from your parents. (I. WAS. SHOCKED.)
3. I heard various teachers yelling throughout the day at their students, cutting them down, asking “What is wrong with you children?” and singling students out. I saw a few students reduced to tears, then scolded for showing any type of emotion.
4. I witnessed a mother, a school employee, come into the classroom when her son was completely out-of-line and smack him across the back of the head, telling him to answer a question, threatening that if he didn’t she would embarrass him in front of the whole class. (Granted, this child was being a discipline problem, but did that really have to happen?)
5. I witnessed a volunteer from one of the colleges disrespect the teacher during a discussion on slavery, telling the teacher that she was absolutely wrong, and that black people did have a write to be angry at the white people in the United States because we took advantage of them. The teacher was trying to explain England’s role in slavery. It should be noted that the volunteer does not come in to volunteer in class, but to serve as a reading buddy for one of the students, and is only at the class door while waiting to get the student and while bringing the student back to class.
6. I witnessed a teacher become so angry at a student that he threw a project that he made across the room, breaking it, telling the student that he was now going to get an F, when the student did amazing on the project, the teacher was just at his wit’s end for the day.
7. I witnessed the amount of supplies that teacher’s buy for their own classroom, everyday supplies, that the school does not reimburse them for.
8. I witnessed the sub par offering that RSD considers a decent hot meal for lunch. Every lunch, with the exception of two served occasionally, consists of something over white rice. Still trying to figure out if that is a regional thing or if that is a way the RSD tries to save money.
9. I witnessed four fights. Each boy trying to prove how hard he was to the other. Each boy targeting a much, much smaller kid.
10. I witnessed a social worker really get through to a kid by relating to him on his terms. I heard the whole conversation from the hallway, however, instead of meeting the kid in private where they could talk about what was really going on.
11. The granddaddy of them all, to me anyway, is when my class was getting their science homework. The workbooks were passed out, mostly because the students do not have room in their desks with all of the LEAP textbooks and workbooks they are given, and they were discussing the homework as a class. One student raised his hand and when called on, he told the teacher his workbook already had writing in it. The teacher responded, “We didn’t get new books this year, so you are just going to have to ignore their answers.”
Call me naive. Perhaps maybe I am a bit to the workings of an inner city school, but can’t they at least provide the children with workbooks each year so they can actually learn? I understand the importance of the LEAP test and what the data means for the school, but do we really want our children to fall further behind in things they should currently be learning because “We didn’t get new books this year?”
Anyway, some observations made that were odd enough to impact me for the day.
Elizabeth Wurtzel annoys me. Really, she just does. Right now I am sentenced to reading each of her books and to get through them has been a pain-stakingly difficult process. I just want to tell her to buck up, make better decisions, and quit action like she is the voice of my generation because, dammit, she is not MY voice, nor is she or was she ever the voice of my friends. Excuses, excuses. That is all that I am reading. Someone needed to really hand her a life where she didn’t have the opportunity to make excuses, but had to be busy living so she could survive. It isn’t that I don’t understand mental health or mental illness or addiction. I DO. It’ s just every book, every essay, and every article is the exact same thing.
Yes, I am over-dosed on Elizabeth Wurtzel at the moment.
Class today was great. The kids were so excited to see me today and gave me a great welcome back. I helped them with geometry, learning about symmetry, and did some correction of English – work on commas. I leave the classroom with a full heart, despite some of the difficulties and problems I witness, I always do. I am excited to go back tomorrow. Tomorrow is creative writing.
I thought it was interesting that the kids were talking about the murder of Wendy Byrne. Half the class is split that the parent’s turned the children in because it was the right thing to do, the other half believed the parents were sick of dealing with the children and didn’t want them anymore so that is why they turned them in. I think that is interesting, though I am too tired to look at what that really means. Another interesting thing happened today. My daughter came up to give me a hug and one of her classmates that has taken a particular shining towards me asked, “Do you guys do that a lot? Hug?” I told him that yes we do. He then told me that his family doesn’t. That broke my heart. I told him that my family wasn’t very affectionate either, which is why I make sure I am affectionate with my children. I told him that he would have to make sure he did that with his kids. He said he was never going to have kids, not with how crazy the world was. I thought that was very astute from a nine year old, and a bit sad, too.
I am reading a book on human trafficking written by Linda Smith, who served in the U.S House of Representatives for Washington state, and founded of Shared Hope, International. Shared Hope, International is an organization founded to fight human trafficking, being inspired by a trip to India and seeing young girls caged up and sold for sex. Her organization has done a lot of work. In reading the book, a short little number, it is difficult not to cringe as she describes what she has seen. If you can get past the calling-from-God-isms that she writes about here and there in the book, I suggest going to the Shared Hope website and request your free copy. More needs to be done. I am currently reading more about human trafficking in the United States, particularly in Louisiana, and the things that I am learning – it is disgusting that people are treated this way.
My daughter was very sweet tonight and left a card on my bed for me. It was a thank you card and inside she wrote:
“Mom, Thank you for loving me so much and everything you do from cheering me up to making me smile. I love you like a puppy and will take care of you every day. Love E”
I totally needed that tonight, as I was a tad bit cranky. I have the best daughter. I really do.
As I head over to NOLA.com, the following headines are the first thing I see:
Gulf Port Mayorfaces Katrina fraud Charges
St. Charles Parish Councilman in ethics bind over his day job
DA wants to try 14 year old as adult in French Quarter murder of Wendy Byrne
Letter offers clues to suicide death of family in Los Angeles; both parents had lost jobs
In a city like New Orleans, it is easy to feel despair. Despair is often felt by those without hope. With the crime rate, the education system, and the elected officials in office, it is easy to feel like right now, our city has no hope.
It made me think, though, doesn’t all this negativity just feed into more negativity? Doesn’t this despair just feed into more despair? Don’t we then begin to ride a carousel of self-loathing, pity, sadness, depression, and defeat? I know I have experienced it. I experienced it earlier this week when I questions whether or not I should continue to call New Orleans home, or if I should move and start life over again in a small community, a safe community, sacrificing what it is that drew me from Wisconsin to Louisiana in the first place.
It took simple comment from another good hearted New Orleanian to change my way of thinking. That comment was followed by many more. Those comments were followed my e-mails and a real feeling of community, seeing what good there is in this city, seeing what good can be done. It took a gesture, a card from a classroom of third graders, to melt away the bitterness that was starting to encase my heart.
New Orleans does have crime. It does have undesirables. It also has ineffective leaders. Do you know what else New Orleans has? It has heart. It has a city full of survivors. It has kindess. It has potential.
We all read enough bad things about New Orleans. It IS important to acknowledge them. It IS important to organize and change the city. It is also important to remember the beauty and the kindness that exists here.
I think that I am going to start a blog about the Good News in this city, not just the bad. A blog where the human spirit that encompasses what New Orleans really is can be revealed, appreciated, and acknowledged.
We may be the city that care forgot, but we are NOT the city that forgot to care.
Like a superhero transforming from Joe Dirt to Captain Crankypants in a telephone booth, every Wednesday and Thursday, for an hour and a half, I transform from Amy to Mrs. M. I don’t become a superhero, not in the traditional sense, but I become a teaching assistant – volunteering my time to my daughter’s classroom, helping students, helping teacher, and helping myself. I first suggested this when I saw how daunting the task of public school teacher was in the New Orleans public schools. I wanted to help. I wanted to be involved. My daughter’s teacher graciously took me up on my offer and for the past semester I have been explaining, teaching, leading, and caring. Sometimes I help with group projects, other times I correct papers. Once in a while I get in front of the class and lead.
It can be frustrating at times, don’t get me wrong. I have broken up a couple of fights. I have had to raise my voice and do the countdown that, at home, means trouble is brewing and mom has gotten in touch with her Irish side. I have had to stare down a boy that told me he was grown and could do what he wanted. And a few thought they could get away with things, not realizing I was always a step ahead of them. There were a few times I cried, like when I saw a mother punch her son in the chest in the hallway when she came to pick him up. Sometimes I have felt that whether I was there or not didn’t make a difference to the kids – some were past the point of breaking.
And then today happened.
For the past two weeks, I haven’t made it to assist in class. I was dealing with a lot of really heavy issues, along with some chronic pain that crescendoed to being unbearable and left me stuck in bed most of the week.
Today was the first day that I had picked my daughter up from school, trudging up the stairs to the entrance, then the stairs to her classroom. I waited patiently outside the classroom door, not wanting to be one of those parents that felt that since I was there to pick her up, instruction automatically ended. Finally, it was time for class to end and I popped my head in the door. I was greated with a chorus of “Mrs. M!” “Mrs. M!”
“Hey Mom!” my daughter greeted me, handing me a yellow envelope.
To: Mrs. M
From: Ms. S and Class
I checked in with Ms. S quickly, letting her now that I would be there on Wednesday and was feeling pretty good.
My daughter and I walked down the steps to the exit, then the many of steps until the sidewalk, chit chatting about her day, what she had to suffer through for lunch, and the homework she needed to do before I would let her finish reading Charolette’s Web when she asked what was in the card.
I opened the card up, read it, and tears instantly fell down my cheeks. Those who know me well will tell you I tear up, but not often do the tears actually fall. This was one of those rare moments.
“You are in our prayers daily, in our hearts hourly, in our thoughts always,” the card read.
It was when I turned the card over that I began to cry.
I hope you get better soon – Michael
I hope you get well so you can come visit – Kamesha
I hope you will be ok – Love, Eboni
I hope you get well and I wish you a happy new year – Jotavia
I hope you will be fine – Sydney
I hope you feel better soon – Ronell
I love you because you help us well – Dante
Thank you – Terry
Thank you from all of us and I hope you have a good recovery – Israel
I love you for helping us – Sheldon
I am very glad you help us. Thank you – Janari
I hope you get better – Denver
I hope you feel better – Azlynn
Get well soon. I think about you! – Keyanna
I hope you get well. I miss you – Ashley
Feel better soon – Lyric
Thank you for helping the class. – Trey
I hope you re feeling better soon – George
Mrs. M come back soon! – Harold
I hope you get better and can help me write my basketball story – James
It was in that moment, my decision was made, I cannot leave this city. This city, those kids, they need me.
I love New Orleans. The REAL New Orleans. The New Orleans that you don’t see on Girls Gone Wild Mardi Gras or any snapshot taking by a bunch of sorority girls on Spring Break hitting up Bourbon. I love the New Orleans that represents strength, pride, tradition. I like the New Orleans that fosters creativity, that holds the Audubon Park and Zoo, that makes up City Park. I love the shotgun houses, the slave shakes, and the fact that on Fat Tuesday, every single business is closed. I love the New Orleans that represents good people, hard working people, people who love and live.
Unfortunately for me, I don’t see much of that New Orleans right now. This is probably my own fault, still adjusting to life in the Big Easy, life away from my small pond in small Wisconsin where I was a rather big fish. It is really different. Very different. And, unfortunately, I haven’t fully allowed my roots to plant deeply in the ground, wander too far away from my home Uptown. And I allow myself to read nola.com – the comments, the stories, the articles – and it makes me very, very afraid. This isn’t to say New Orleans is a bad place to live. Again, I love New Orleans – it just scares the hell out of me.
Maybe it is because I haven’t allowed myself much time to really get to know New Orleans outside of my comfort zone, to meet people, to make friends, to get involved. Maybe it is becaus I don’t know how I get involved or where to even start. I would love to be able to feel comfortable going out for the night with my husband, hanging out at Carrollton Station or Maple Leaf Bar or adventuring out to some other part of town and taking in a play or seeing an art exhibit. What stops me from doing this? Well, I can count on my hand the number of people I know in this city,not related to my occupation, and I couldn’t ask any of these people to please watch my daughter for the night. It is a cycle for me, you see, and one that I find plenty of excuses to keep running in circles.
Maybe it has to do with being mugged at 4:00 in the afternoon, walking my daughter home from school on Carrollton Avenue. Or maybe it has to do with going to bed, looking out the window, and seeing someone on my porch, attempting to still my plastic lawn chairs that I bought for $4 each at Dollar General. Or maybe it is the comments made to me when I pick my daughter up from her publis school. Or maybe I am just not cut out to live in the city, any city. I have developed the coping skills for living in a city, especially this city. But I love this city. I really do.
Do you see the battle that is constantly raging inside of me?
No, let’s not.
Yes, I need to get out of here.
No, you don’t – this place is your home, remember how you felt driving into the city with your possessions packed in your car, excited?
But that was before the crime.
Crime is everywhere.
But not like this!
In some places it is worse, you don’t know what you are getting into.
Someone was murdered near my home.
Her son did it.
You can’t count on the police.
Avoid situations where you need the police.
People die in the jails here! People are beaten!
I can’t argue with that. That is very true.
It is like having two people inside my body- one going to the right, the other to the left – ripping me entirely in half. In some ways, it feels like being locked away in a prison, almost afraid to leave your home, no matter at what time of day.
Am I being over-dramatic?
That is entirely possible. It really is. I am from an unincorporated town in Wisconsin. I milked cows, fed chickens, and took care of rabbits growing up. We left our doors unlocked. We rode our bikes after dark. Our neighbors knew one another, looked out for one another, and cared when things happened.
So, New Orleans, how do I embrace you – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and fully bloom where I am planted, without the whispers in my ear of Hammond or Robert or Baton Rouge? How do I walk outside, not afraid, and explore?
Probably one step at a time. Courtwatchers. Maybe a book club. Perhaps starting a writing club. Something. Anything.
New Orleans, I so want to call you home, but at what cost?
My piece-of-mind? My daughter’s education?
I really don’t know the answer, but feel much better saying it out loud than keeping it buried inside.
My heart is in this city, but it is held prisoner by the thug mentality. In that respect, the fear of my safety and that of my child, they win.
They fucking win.
For a very long time, months after I left my ex-husband, I could not sleep. I would nap for an hour or two, wake up, put effort into getting tired once more, then sleep for another few hours. The first good night of sleep that I had in probably a year was the first time my current husband spent the night at my house, me camped out on the floor, falling asleep during a movie, him on the couch, hanging around to make sure I was ok until he fell asleep himself. That night of sleep felt so good. I remember waking up the next day, actually feeling rested. I felt safe with him there, secure, and I knew that thoughts that chased sleep away for me were now being chased away by him, whether he knew it or not.
We had this silly routine at first – stuck in that weird little stage at the beginning of every relationship that spawns from friendship, when we were dating, kind of, maybe, not for sure, but I think so – where he would come over to my house to have supper and watch a movie or a television show that we both liked.
“You don’t mind if I lay down while we watch this do you?”
“No,” he would say, “That’s fine.”
“Just to warn you, I might fall asleep.”
“You don’t mind if I hang out here a while, do you?”
“No! That’s fine.”
And eventually I would fall asleep and he would fall asleep. Gradually we made it to sleeping next to one another, cuddling.
Then things took a turn. He began self-medicating with alcohol and we didn’t sleep anymore. He passed out, I would dance a line between sleep and consciousness, worried about him, and what would happen or what he would do while I allowed myself the freedom to rest. This went on much longer than I would have liked, too long, but eventually the self-medication faded away and sleep found me again.
Except for times like tonight.
My mind is awake, thinking about this city, wondering about what is happening out there when the lights are down and the world has gone quiet, except Bourbon St. Lately there has been a lot of senseless acts of violence, and it frightens me. Being from a small town, I’m not used to this, not that I think I would ever want to get used to it. So sleep escapes tonight, and my mind thinks of the lives that have been lost that didn’t need to be. I wonder what I can do to help foster change? What can I do to make this city that I do love genuinely safer for my daughter and myself. Is there anything that I can really do, aside let my voice be heard?
The net of my husband’s arms around me cannot capture sleep on a night like tonight. A night when I probably need sleep the most.