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Who's Holding the Gun?

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Yesterday we learned officially that Frederick Douglass High School will close within the next two years and maybe even next year. This decision came without input from students, their parents, teachers, or community members.

In light of this news, we want to share an important essay by Vinnessia Shelbia, a 2007 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School. In “Who’s Holding the Gun?” she explains the difficulties of having to constantly search for a place to call home.

Douglass High School has experienced similar never-ending change. A month before school started this year, we learned that the principal who had been with us in our first year since Katrina and with whom we had planned school improvement initiatives with students, parents, and community members would no longer be our principal. Last year approximately half of our teachers were first-year, uncertified teachers who were new to New Orleans. This year we have had about a 50% turnover in teachers from the previous year. Seven weeks into this school year, we had major schedule changes for most of our students and the transfer of approximately 20% of our faculty. And right about that time, the power went out in half of our building, causing us to move classrooms. And for the second year in a row, we shared our building for a significant part of the year with another RSD school.

Prior to the announcement to our faculty about the new plans for Douglass, we saw a power point presentation that included a slide detailing the school improvement scores of another Louisiana high school over a ten-year period. The slide showed gradual change in 2-3 year increments. What the slide did not say is that over that ten-year period, the improving school had the same principal and the same school reform model. In the same ten-year period, Douglass has had nine principals, eight superintendents, and just about as many school improvement initiatives.

As Vinnessia’s essay indicates, our students have also been experiencing many changes in their home lives, including multiple students with parents who have died since Katrina.

Vinnessia planned to read this essay last weekend at the College Composition and Communication Conference. She was unable to read it because her family members had just received word that they had to move out of their current residence. Vinnessia was packing rather than presenting.

Who’s Holding the Gun?
Vinnessia Shelbia

vinnessia.JPG

Leaving out of New Orleans was hard, because there’s no other place like it. But living in New Orleans post Katrina is just as bad, because there’s nowhere to live. There are places to sleep, but nowhere to live.

When I came back to New Orleans after living in Georgia for one year, leaving my immediate family behind, I went to stay with my relatives living closest to New Orleans. That was my father’s mother whom I had never lived with any of my life. My grandma stayed in Jefferson Parish, but it only took me three buses from her house to get to New Orleans.

Staying there didn’t last long, but what could I expect: 12 people living in a one-bedroom, one-bath don’t add up. Plus being falsely accused of stealing and dealing with other people’s stressed out drama wasn’t working.

“Yeah I know she got some of my sister jewelry.”

My eyes opened, and I turned over and lay in the bed fully woke but not well rested. And I knew I wouldn’t be going back to sleep no time soon, because grandma Tilly had to call everybody she know, telling them something is missing from her sister’s house and she knows who got it.

As I lay and stared at the bed above me, and she went on and on, I realized that the “she” was me. My father had stolen some of his aunt’s jewelry, and my grandmother would bet her life that I was the one he gave it to. That night I stayed up crying and thinking.

I remember getting up early one morning and just cleaning. I was in the kitchen washing dishes, and my grandmother came in and said,

“Somebody must have told you to clean up.”

As if I don’t clean up, which I would always do. But by so many different people going in and out, sooner or later the house would get back dirty.

So I turned to my last resort: A homeless shelter. None of my relatives lived in the city. I had only one close friend from middle to high school. I couldn’t stay at her house. It was over crowed with her family members. If you would have asked me where I saw myself in the future, I wouldn’t have said a shelter.

Around this time in their lives, other teenagers are happy and planning their senior year, but not me. I was worried about will I get raped by one of these homeless men who are sleeping right on the other side of the room. And because these worries are keeping me up, will I be rested enough for school tomorrow. And while I was thinking about school, I’d also worry how will I get there, since there are no more bus tickets that permit me to ride the bus for free. The yellow school busses comes when they want, for whatever reason that is. So many school days go unattended, and my teachers ask why. . .and where’s your mother?

Well my mother has finally pawned everything that she can to feed my brothers. And she has filled out so many applications. But for what? The people who take her applications have no direct contact, since she can’t afford to keep a phone on. I can remember times when I was in New Orleans and I would have to call my brother’s friend and hope that he was at my mother’s house so I could talk to her. My burned-out mother did the only thing she knew: Sell everything in the house to get tickets back to New Orleans.

Writing this makes me angry. It makes me wonder what kind of world do we live in when children no older than 14 are experiencing these things.

Even though my mother came back recently, we remain homeless because the prices for rent are outstanding and standing out. So now my whole family is homeless: Mother and sister at a woman’s shelter and a week later my sister Angela gets put out because she can’t find a job and that’s one of their requirements. So luckily Angela found a shelter that was not over crowded and was taking women without children.

My youngest brother Savion was living in Boy’s Town. Maybe once out of every three weeks I would talk to him, and he would ask me the same thing:

“When moma gon get a house?”

I would tell him what she would tell me, “Hopefully soon.”

I didn’t know, and she didn’t know either. Those conversations were like a reality smack, waking me up so see that we were just hoping and wouldn’t be getting a house anytime soon.

New Orleans really is the murder capital, but now who’s holding the gun?

1 Comment

Vinnessia,
My students at Boston College read your essay and it became the centerpiece of our week-long discussion of post-Katrina New Orleans. Thanks for inspiring us to ask new questions about the meaning of home and about the local and federal government's many failures to protect homes and communities for citizens in New Orleans. We are thinking of you and your family during this difficult time.
Best wishes,
Catherine Michna, Instructor/Doctoral Student, Boston College English Department

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  • catherine: Vinnessia, My students at Boston College read your essay and read more

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