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Six months later

written Saturday, 3/04/2006

Too grim the cartoon?

Early feedback suggests that last week’s Flash cartoon does not exactly leave the viewer with a warm squishy feeling. When writing the poem a couple years ago, I remember thinking that it didn’t quite capture the light-hearted tone that was intended. Oh well – I thoroughly enjoyed making the animation, and was able to practice several new Flash techniques (drawing some of the motions frame-by-frame, making custom sound effects, and programming slightly more advanced features). With the completion of that project, now I need to find some new ways to distract myself from school.

Greater New Orleans, six months later

A half-year after Katrina, life is still far from normal. As a newcomer to the area, I didn’t get much time to appreciate what “normal” is out here, so I largely rely on descriptions from others. Some things are clearly not life-as-usual.

Where I live, in suburban Kenner, at least the trash piles on the sidewalks were cleared away months ago. Many buildings and homes are in the process of being fixed up, as I’m reminded by two more nails that I found in my tires last week. A couple dozen (?) apartments in my complex remain gutted since their roofs didn’t withstand the storm. Every week it seems a few more businesses open back up, although there are plenty that aren’t set to reopen anytime soon. Blue tarps on roofs are still a common sight, as are housing trailers set up in front yards and designated parking lots. Traffic congestion brings back memories of Silicon Valley during the height of the Internet economy. Presumably thousands of people are commuting back and forth to work on their destroyed properties. Many of the vehicles are trucks, clearly involved in the reconstruction effort. I commonly see license plates from about 10 different states.

The parts of New Orleans that I’ve passed through the most are in Uptown, and near the French Quarter. These weren’t the worst-affected areas, yet stop signs have been set up to control much of the traffic flow since most traffic lights have yet to be fixed. Plenty of buildings lay in ruins, although I suspect that many weren’t in great shape prior to last summer.

As I drive to UNO for class each week, entire neighborhoods along the way appear abandoned. Situated by Lake Pontchartrain, a brown flood line striped across the houses shows exactly where the water reached several feet high. Power hasn’t been restored in much of the area, and a majority of the buildings don’t look like they’ve been touched in the last six months.

I’ve never seen the hardest-hit areas of the Louisiana gulf coast. A morbid curiosity tempts me to drive through New Orleans East and the lower 9th Ward to see the poor neighborhoods that were completely drowned by the broken levees. Ultimately though, I don’t see the point in going out of my way to witness someone else’s tragedy.

As the school year ends three months from now, the 2006 Hurricane season will begin.

The students, six months later

More significant than the ruined buildings, Katrina’s damage to people’s lives still persists. Again, it’s hard for me to compare how things used to be, but a number of my West Jefferson colleagues have commented that they’ve never seen such poor student behavior and academics at their school. I’m sure many of the kids’ home lives have been turned upside down. The school population has been jumbled by new students transplanted from other schools, and old students who’ve never returned. Statistically speaking, a significant percentage of the kids must know someone who died as a result of the hurricanes. How could they not be dealing with depression and/or posttraumatic stress?

Many of the kids work at jobs late into the night, and thus constantly catch up on sleep at school. I’m curious how many are pressured to help support their families. Almost every fast-food restaurant has been offering increased wages ($9-$10 hourly) and hiring bonuses (typically $100 or more weekly) to rebuild their workforces. Kids are also making more money than they’ve ever seen in the construction trade. I suppose more than ever, immediate needs and shortsighted temptations are pushing education way down on the list of priorities.

The job, six months later

On Friday, I had my students fold and decorate pieces for geometric origami models that I’ll hang from the classroom ceiling.

Which factors are most responsible for each difficult week at school? I don’t know when to blame Katrina, versus teaching in a depressed area, versus the trials of any teacher’s rookie year. Fortunately, those are not destined to be permanent factors throughout a teaching career. I have plenty of reason to believe things will get better in future years. However, I’ve questioned from the start whether my personality would ever be well-suited for the demands of teaching.

In this strange year, I’ve had three “first days of school”: pre-Katrina Bonnabel (August 22), post-Katrina Bonnabel reopening (October 3), and the transfer to West Jefferson (December 15). As someone who’s never been much of a “people-person,” I was surprised and impressed with how composed I felt during all three of those experiences. The nervousness I felt on each of those days was relatively minor, so I thought that it would have completely disappeared by now.

During the latest vacation, though, I still spent most of my time dreading the return. I always get this odd fear that whatever gains I’ve made in the classroom will suddenly diminish over the extra days off, as students reenergize for a coup attempt. Furthermore, I get an uneasy feeling every morning when I approach the school campus, worried that I’m not adequately prepared for the day. I tense up every time groups of students enter my classroom. I greet them, but my “good morning” even sounds forced to me. My greatest anxiety occurs between class periods, when we teachers post ourselves by the doorways and patrol student traffic. Large groups of people conversing and laughing in a crowded space always raise my anxiety level. Never mind that this is not even my own peer group. Standing there against a wall, excluded from all the interactions, reminds me too much of other times when I’ve felt socially awkward. Once we’re all in the classroom and the group focus turns to math (or sleeping), I gradually slip into my comfort zone.

Engineering may not have been my calling, but it sure accommodated my introverted tendencies much better than this profession. I see some teachers who appear completely at ease with their students, and wonder if that’s a skill I’ll be able to acquire with practice. Or, maybe that’s a trait that needed to be developed sometime during the last 32 years. It’ll get better, I know, but I wonder if this shortcoming can ever be turned into a strength.

External factors such as hurricanes and poor academic climates will always pose plenty of obstacles in this job. However, my biggest challenge today is to convince myself that teaching – in Greater New Orleans or elsewhere – is a natural fit for who I am.