Students at the Center, Educators at Heart
The storm’s pushed me to the other side of the classroom door. It’s strange waiting in the office, pressing the visitor’s pass to your shirt, listening to the voice on the other side of the intercom saying, “Please send them up to my classroom.”
But in mid-November, in an old Houston neighborhood school converted into a middle school for displaced New Orleans students, there’s no place I’d rather be.
Towana couldn’t wait in her classroom. Kalamu, Ashley, and I met her on the stairwell, exchanged hugs as 12-year-olds slid around us. At that moment, about a month into Towana’s teaching career (well, a month and a half—she had those almost two weeks before the storm hit), I confirmed what I already knew. Towana’s a great teacher.
I knew she had that curious mind and big heart, that drive to excel. She grew up poor and working class and black in New Orleans. She’s part of the people, the people who gave the world gifts forged in circumstances most people wouldn’t even have survived.
Imagine having all that, and then having what I call that basketball player awareness, digging back to what I did before I started teaching 20 -some years ago. Her eyes told it. She can concentrate and smile, communicate and move, with 20 people and more tasks swirling around her.
And picture this: Towana could be doing anything she wanted. She’s already produced award-winning films and radio commentaries. She was valedictorian of one of the top high schools in the state. She graduated from Howard University in four years, birthing and raising a son all the while. She’s got that Louis Martinet (among others) thing. (Who’s Louis Martinet? You can read Rodneka’s essay about him at www.strom.clemson.edu/teams/literacy/sac).
But she wants to teach. She wants to be with her students. She wants to teach in New Orleans again. She wants to continue the Students at the Center work.
And she’s not alone. Just that morning I hopped out of the shower to grab a call from LaQuita, who’s three years younger than Towana and graduated from Douglass not McDonogh 35. But like Towana, the storm had tossed her to Houston after a couple stops on the way. And LaQuita wanted to join us (and disturbed my shower to get driving directions) even though she’d worked the night shift and had classes at the college later that day. LaQuita’s studying to be an elementary teacher.
LaQuita, like many of our students, started teaching as part of the SAC program. It starts with teaching each other. And then it involves working with younger students, which LaQuita turned into a job with a community learning center that SAC helped start with a number of neighborhood partners, the same ones who are working to rebuild a neighborhood school in the ninth ward right now.
One of LaQuita ’s teachers at Douglass was Erica DeCuir, one of the students who designed Students at the Center back in 1995. Erica never had the opportunity to take an SAC class, but when she graduated from Washington University, she decided to pass, for the moment, on law school or grad school in African history. Instead she wanted to give at least two years to teaching with SAC. She now has a master’s in teaching from Teacher’s College at Columbia University and is teaching in Atlanta.
I can see, because I’ve already seen it, LaQuita and Damien (a year older than LaQuita and also displaced to Texas, a Douglass High and SAC graduate, and an elementary education major), teaching students at Drew Elementary, right across the street from their alma mater on St. Claude Ave. in the ninth ward in New Orleans. And across the street at Douglass there’s Towana down the hall from Erica, passing smiles and ideas between classes.
That’s where I really want to be and where I’m heading: In New Orleans, in the Douglass High School office, asking for a visitor pass to climb those old marble stairs and hang out with some students being taught by some of my former students. And that’s what New Orleans needs most, our people back and developing each other.
(NOTE: In January, 2006, a wonderful interview with Towana about her experiences will be available at the Listen to the People project site, accessible through www.kalamu.com. )