Thursday, March 22, 2007

New Orleans Smiles

Blanco is out. The Army Corps of Engineers is guilty. My hands are torn to pieces and itchy from insulation. And New Orleans and I are sharing a smile—as she (in French it’s Nouvelle Orleans—which is feminine so in the gender constrained world of language New Orleans is a woman) often does.

I’m nearing the end of my stay here (though I know it is not going to be my last—I’ll either be back as volunteer, tourist or both) and to this point I haven’t been able to find the words to put to paper. I’ve heard so many stories and met so many people my head and heart is swimming. I’m still not sure that I have found any words but let’s give it a shot—

On the whole there have been a lot of smiles in New Orleans—and as far as I can tell this place has been upbeat and resilient even before all hell broke loose with Katrina. My group, the Hands On group, have been talking a lot about how it’s nice to stay positive and to see the beautiful auras that surround people the people of New Orleans. It’s inspiring.

But I don’t feel healthy doing that (seeing the positive) all the time. You have to see the negative. You have to engage it, you have to reflect on it. You have to see the blatant racism. You have to see the failure of our government—the failure of the institution exists to keep us safe…

Right now I’m sitting Dryades YMCA, which is also a charter school, sitting in the halls making sure elementary aged kids stay in their classes to take tests to determine if they can advance in school. One test. One test tells ya if you can move on or not.

Earlier in the week our group took a bustour of New Orleans and the devastation that Katrina brought. Our bus driver, Sylvester, like most of the people of New Orleans I’ve met, can tell one hell of a story—needless to say my eyes and mind were always outside the bus and in the streets of New Orleans, thanks to Sylvester.

Sylvester was once a teacher, a very popular one. He was a good teacher, but his own daughter had a lot of problems getting into kindergarten thanks to one entrance test. He said that one of the questions had a picture of goulashes. His daughter and the other students taking the test had to decide whether or not the picture showed goulashes or boots. Seriously. I’m almost a college grad. An English major, a world traveler, and I have no idea what the difference between goulashes and boots is, let alone decide from a picture which one is which. Now this is a bit of an overstatement, but I wonder if I would have even made it into this kindergarten…

I just walked out of a class that is done with testing today. I met a young six grader. She saw her cousin pull a man who had fallen off a roof while waiting to be saved. She said her cousin pulled him up from the water. “He was all just skin and bones, just barely skin and bones.” She’s in sixth grade. If life isn’t easy, then school isn’t and that means tests gotta be hell…

So what’s my point here? Like I said my group, whom I really love, has been talking a lot about how great and inspiring it is to see these people persevere. And lord knows it has re-energized my life. It’s that inspiration that gets me up every morning here at 6am and keeps me sleeping in a giant room filed with 80 or so other 20 somethings.

But we’d be cheating that spirit, denying that inspiration if we forget about the negative.

If we don’t talk about and reflect upon the atrocities that happened here all the smiles will be in vain. Pardon my language—but shit went down here that can’t be forgotten, and we as a people, all of us, need to make sure this shit never happens again.

I hate to advocate anger (interesting sentence), but you have to be angry about what happened here.

You need to be frustrated, you can’t get lost in the smiles and Bourbon Street and all the beautiful people you meet.

You have to be angry at the system that caused all this suffering.

That’s how change happens. With a sharp critical eye on the status quo and hands willing to be scarred from heavy work and action.

OK. So I’m not much of a pep-talker...

But for now, this is what I’ve got—
Sun Burnt,
And covered in insulation
In the Big Easy,

Sean Bailey

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