Introduction to the Narratives New Orleans Speaking to Us

Article excerpt

We can productively read the following narratives from students and teachers in New Orleans schools in multiple ways--as diaries of intense personal experience; cries for understanding; examples of dedication, resilience and persistence; as calls of conscience--but in this introduction I will focus on what these words tell us about not only New Orleans schools, but schools throughout our nation, as proverbial 'canaries in our educational mines'. A strong sense of New Orleans culture pervades these narratives: of succulent foods, soulful music, richly scented atmospheres, a powerful sense of identification between people and place, the legacies of the institutions of and resistance to slavery, Jim Crow, and desegregation, "centuries of culture-making threads" (Frazier). (1) The larger question--what of this will survive hurricane, flood, and reconstruction while making change in the education system?--is the context for any serious discussion of the present and future of New Orleans education. New Orleans's spicy story is also part of the American chronicle, so these narratives can inform our understanding of the current crisis in American education.

Almost all students have a strong sense of social hierarchy, who is favored by current arrangements, and who is relegated to the sidelines, to second-class life. In every city in the country there are the Frederick Douglass high schools in the neighborhoods with low test scores, and the selective McDonogh 35's who cream the high achievers from the neighborhoods, but often at the cost of student estrangement from community. Theresa Perry, among others, has bemoaned that too often "'the price of the ticket' is separation from the culture of my reference group." (2) So we read that Damien hates 35, but somehow loves Ashley who attended McDonogh 35 (Randels) and Crystal Carr at 35 was "'taught to stay away from the community. She misses "her community-based learning and home at Douglass. Yet I also love the education I receive at McDonogh 35. I feel stuck between the two ... I wish 35 was more like Douglass and Douglass was more like 35." (Carr) This is as far as the last generation of desegregation has taken us in providing the opportunity for quality education, the 'good' school separating the 'good' student from his or her community, while the neighborhood school languishes, short of essential resources.

The narratives make clear the obstacles to identity development for many of our school children. Again, to cite Perry, the questions for many students are "how do I commit myself to achieve, to work hard over time in school, if I cannot predict (in school or out of school) when or under what circumstances this hard work will be acknowledged and recognized?" and "how can I aspire to and work toward excellence when it is unclear whether or when evaluations of my work can or should be taken seriously?" (3) Ashley Jones was called upon to triumph over her 7th grade teacher "who never believed that I wrote anything myself' (Jones). Adrinda Kelly, in 8th grade was made "to feel conspicuous" and "reprehensible" for an innocent, if off task, personal moment (Kelly). Undermining reprimands are not confined to white teachers in their "overwhelming, incomprehensible whiteness" (Kelly) but can include black teachers whose suspicion and low expectations (Jones) can also do considerable damage. The disdainful looks and the casual doubting can knock even confident young learners for a loop. We are lucky to have access to the words of these ultimately triumphant students; but they also remind us of the countless, anonymous, students who have checked out of school after similar destructive interactions. They then go on to constitute "the invisible millions ... [who] cannot see themselves in the world, and therefore have no sense of entitlement to it." (Kelly)

A more hopeful depiction of the fateful relationship between teacher and student is vividly evoked in the accounts of SAC (Students at the Center), one of the "islands of excellence" that Dirk Tillotson refers to in another article in this issue. …