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Students at the Center, Educators at Heart

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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. )


4 Comments

Mr. Randels,

I can't explain how good it feels to read your thoughts at a time like this. I'm currently working in Washington, D.C. and I was on my way back home to New Orleans the week of the storm. Of course, my flight was cancelled and like most of the citizens I lost my home. I'm very thankful that my family are accounted for and I hope that your family and friends are all safe. I'm very interested in your future plans for the Center and I'm willing to offer any assisstance needed. Please feel free to contact me. (504)481-3936 [email protected] Janelle A. Smith

Dear Mr. Randels,

I am a college student in Arizona, working on a degree in Education. I have followed your blogs since you first began posting them. Originally I was interested in gathering information about the effects of Katrina on education, specifically how much of an impact the storm made on schools in the Gulf Coast area.

Over the last few months, your posts and the comments they have generated, have made a tremendous impression on me. I feel deeply affected by all you have to say.

The students you speak about and all the other ones that I imagine are out there, dealing with the immense changes and struggles that the storm has produced, have become as real to me as the students I sit in class with every day.

Your sustained efforts to locate and link up with your students gives me hope that no matter what might happen to our education system, no matter what setbacks we may find in our lives, the persistent effort to continue to learn and grow stays alive because of teachers like you.

God Bless you for your dedication, drive and genuine commitment to your students and to all students. Your deep love of learning is evident in every thing you say, and that love is a beautiful and rare gift.

Thank you for sharing it with so many people.

Sincerely,
Vicki Morgan

Hi my name is Brittini. The past few months have been one of the most mind boggling situations. I never imagined i would be in a situation to this extent. Katrina has turned my world completely up side down. This year is my last year in high school. However, I am not sure how I am going to afford to pay for college. Many scholarships require you to have certain documents. Every single documents I owned destroyed. Please help me with any information you may have on how I can ressolve this issue. Thank you in advance!

Sincerely,

Brittini

Hi my name is Brittini. The past few months have been one of the most mind boggling situations. I never imagined i would be in a situation to this extent. Katrina has turned my world completely up side down. This year is my last year in high school. However, I am not sure how I am going to afford to pay for college. Many scholarships require you to have certain documents. Every single documents I owned were destroyed. Please help me with any information you may have on how I can ressolve this issue. Please feel free to contact me at (318)-413-1085. Thank you in advance!

Sincerely,
Brittini Mitchell

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