As a kid growing up in Lafayette, La., hurricanes were occasions for fun; not only was school canceled, but my brother and I got to stay up late into the candlelit night, playing Go Fish and drinking chocolate milk with Mom. By morning, we’d look out of windows criss-crossed with tape and survey the damage: a few tree branches littering the yard, a neighbor’s renegade porch chair in the middle of the street. Then we’d go outside and twirl in the fierce rainy winds, grateful that they hadn’t knocked through our French doors in the middle of the night. Blessed is how my mom described us, and it wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina came crashing in, 130 miles east of my hometown, that I could truly appreciate what she’d meant.
At that time, I had just started teaching at Nonesuch, an alternative school nestled on 14 acres of creek-fed redwoods in Sebastopol. Having attended a Catholic high school where the overly air-conditioned, prisonlike building lacked windows and where a typical assignment was memorizing and reciting the names of all 66 books of the Bible, Nonesuch was like a waterfall on a hot day. Finally, I thought, a school that values creative expression and critical thinking over rote facts, where kids are not ranked into misery, where learning extends far beyond the classroom.
Nonesuch is a school that doesn’t just talk about making the world a better place, but actually gets its hands dirty with an annual community-service project trip. In April, I accompanied two parent chaperones (who should be canonized) and nine upperclassmen to New Orleans for a week of hard work. I’d left Louisiana at 18 to brighten a horizon clouded by religious fundamentalism and racism. Twelve years later, I was returning with students who were seeking to pop their own bubbles of white privilege and provincialism.
The story of how New Orleans’ most vulnerable citizens were left behind is now well-known to most. The lesser-known story is that there were people with means to leave who decided to stay anyway. There is Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, who by Sept. 5, 2005, a week after Katrina hit, had already established the Common Ground Collective. Within the next two weeks, Malik had over a hundred people living in his house, and an operational health clinic serving hundreds more.
Four years later, without a dime of federal aid, but with the help of scores of volunteers, Common Ground is still doing the essential work of providing legal assistance to local residents, cultivating community gardens and gutting the uninhabitable houses in need of demolition or repair. By the beginning of this century, the Lower Ninth Ward had the largest percentage of black home ownership in the country, with generational lines stretching back to the settlement of the area in the 1840s. Of the houses that are still standing, 50 percent of them still need to be torn down due to water damage. They bear the scars of numbers denoting how many people and pets were found alive and dead when officials finally made it to them.
Our week of volunteering with Common Ground was gratifying and grueling. Gutting houses is not like gutting fish. The houses bit back with mold spores, itchy insulation, cockroaches, rodent scat and water-logged furniture heavy with death. Wearing facemasks and long sleeves, we hauled debris out to the curb, sledge-hammered dry wall, shoveled endless piles of wreckage into huge plastic tubs. These houses also nipped at our hearts: an umbrella inscribed in a child’s handwriting, a First Communion Bible and a still-legible invitation to a baby shower were among the artifacts of people’s shifted lives we sifted through.
The students were smitten with the culture that in high school I longed to escape. They danced to live zydeco at a local bowling alley. They played basketball with the neighborhood boys, who had little patience for missed baskets. They thrilled at the musical cacophony of Bourbon Street. At my insistence, they ate po’boys, Louisiana’s version of the subway sandwich, usually piled with fried shrimp and greased with plenty of mayonnaise.
I’d spent years marveling at how lucky my students were to grow up in Sonoma County, where organic gardens, progressive ideals and spiritual exploration are woven into the tapestry of their lives. But the Louisiana I saw through their raw, curious eyes—vibrant, brave, familial, diverse—is a place I am blessed, even proud, at last, to call home.
A benefit to send Nonesuch students back to New Orleans and Common Ground for more work is slated for Saturday, Aug. 29, at the Masonic Center. Music by Zydeco flames and Cajun food enliven. 373 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 6:30pm. $15–$50, sliding scale. 707.696.6800.
Jessica Dur spent the summer traveling around Turkey and Bulgaria. She teaches English and history at Nonesuch School.
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