Eugene Cho

a beautiful mess in new orleans

Well, I’m hacking this post because it’s such a compelling read.  This is from Rachel.  She attended Quest for couple years and graduated last year from Seattle Pacific University.  This past year, I had the privilege of baptizing her one month and then, officiating her marriage to Karl-Peter the next month. 

Anyway, both Rachel and Karl-Peter are teachers.  They could have stayed in Seattle but felt compelled to make a small difference in a place that has gone through an incredible havoc and chaos…New Orleans.  So, here they are teaching in the public school system in New Orleans.  Here’s a recent letter from Rachel [h/t Bo]. 

While at times I feel overwhelmed and don’t enjoy being a pastor, I feel blessed to be a part of Quest.  And humbled that Quest is a part of the lives of others – however small or large.

It’s stories like this that give me hope and convict me that “missions” MUST include our struggling through missional living in our daily lives. 

******************************************

Really, it’s a beautiful mess.

That is how I will answer the question you ask me in your ever-loving, and thank the Lord for them, emails. How is New Orleans?

I’m having a bit of a hard time, actually. Surprise, surprise. Chuckle, chuckle, what did she expect, haha. And yet, there is no other place I’d rather be. I’m glad I’m here because SOMEONE needs to be here. What a mess. As it turns out, I work best when I’m angry.

 

And New Orleans gives me a lot of reason to be very angry. If you ever visit, you will surely arrive at the same two conclusions I have about the Crescent City. Although the citizens of New Orleans excel in Common Decency, they lack Common Sense. The average person on the street will go out of their way to greet you, tell you about all their favorite restaurants and clubs, and even give you their phone number and address and invite you over for Sunday second-line parades and barbeques—but that same person on the job, say they are a principal of an inner city high school, will show up an hour late, give their teachers NO information, absent-mindedly forget to ring the bell so class periods persist for up to three hours unplanned, then arbitrarily skip a class period and lunch, and make scattered announcements over the intercom, which only works in half of the classrooms, that class photos are in the auditorium, right now, bring your class down to be photographed. They will distribute no schedules to the students, no rosters to the teachers, but expect that we are keeping attendance and grades for our “students.” Students are allowed to roam all through the halls, the security guards are only a year or two older than the seniors and instead of managing fights in the halls, they talk on their cell phones to lovers or arrange deals with students to be done after school. Big help for school culture.

Fights are a way of life for my students, we have at least one or two big ones a day. Last week our chemistry teacher sustained three blows to the head when trying to stop a fight in his classroom. Blood is often smeared on lockers on spilt on the floor in the hallways when I go home at the end of the day. Last week I heard loud shots down the hall, and heart racing, I screamed that all of my students get down and under the desks, I ran to shut the door (though there are no locks on it), pulled a few more students inside and hunkered down wide-eyed, frightened out of breath, and trying to triage in my mind a situation should shots be fired in my classroom—am I cut out for heroics, would I rather live to tell the story of a tragedy? It ended up being a bunch of boys setting firecrackers off in the stairwell—stupid, but thankfully NOT gunfire.

The administration has given up, largely. They, along with all adults in New Orleans, it seems, rather than working harder, longer, faster, sit back with their beers on their porch, shake their head and say Oh well, It’s always been this bad. Welcome to New Orleans. And they are resistant, defiant even, threatening me with “insubordination” because I refuse to put up with the lowest expectations ever set—still they refuse to make changes for the better. You have to understand that all of this has been made more complicated by Katrina, because it really was “this bad” before the storm, but now, there is a very legitimate excuse for the preservation of all this bad behavior. To the rest of the world, New Orleans is a mess because of Katrina. To those of us who live in the city, New Orleans is and always has been a mess because of a chronic, generational condition called Fake Leadership.

If you took a U.S. History course in high school, you may recall the comical tale of Huey P. Long, the historic paradigm of clusterfuck leadership. He was a buffoon, nearly illiterate, unaware of budget flaws, people’s needs, really quite oblivious to the responsibility that he signed up for. But he kept a smile on his face, kissed the babies, and B.S.ed his way through a whole term as governor of Louisiana. He is a caricature of what can happen when a leader is not kept accountable to the people, and to me, he is a very sad symbol for the disease that continues to infect Louisiana—apathy.

It is infuriating. Wrong. And I feel so very alone a lot of the time, like no one really understands the tragedy of the situation—the consequence of having NO education—or an even more horrific possibility, that perhaps they do understand the consequences all too well. They look at their parent(s) in jail or on drugs, their peers in gangs, their political leaders stealing and lying…and they have just surrendered to that same dark fate, sitting through high school as though it were a holding pen, a waiting room for hell. It’s like one of those French existentialism plays. And at least while we’re waiting, we might as well give teachers a run for their money, get a few thrills from our bongs in the bathroom, set off some firecrackers in the stairwell, beat a few assholes to a pulp before we have to face real consequences. God forbid we learn anything.

There really is no reason that my students should trust me. I’m just another adult to them, along with all the other adults in their lives that haven’t amounted to anything, that let them down time and time again, that hold no promise for better things to come. It’s going to take time to prove to them how much I care, how hard I’m willing to work to get them educated and give them a freedom of mind at the very least, the ability to think for themselves rather than merely reacting, surviving, that they have some stake at crafting a future that doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s. And the reality is, they may never allow me to help. What a maddening career I’ve gotten myself into!

So, while I’m busy, very, very busy, NOT making a difference, impatiently waiting myself for something to come of all this, I must report the “one good thing” the one brilliant moment that all teachers must seek, cherish once found, and cling to after it has happened to keep a spark of motivation under their butts… there was one promising event this week.

On Fridays I have an Open Mic after my quiz to quell the bitching and moaning about how ridiculous I am for making them work on Fridays. Students have an opportunity to present a “creative work” that relates to the material we’ve covered in class that week. So far, everyone has blown it off and instead I give them assignments and mini-lectures to fill the time. But this Friday, when I asked if anyone had something to present, a sheepish hand went up from the thicket of peacock black girl hairdos (after a month of school, the boy population at Rabouin has dwindled…most males have been either suspended, put in juvenile detention, or do not attend school due to gang affiliation.) Was this a joke, was it Quan’shica? Reginiquea? Myquelle? No, it was Joshua, one of two boys in the whole class. Josh is one of the only kids in all of my classes who has a father at home. In fact, he only has a father. He is also the quiet kid who is teased for being special ed. I quieted the class down and announced that we had a performance this week, how nice, Josh, would you please come up front? Oh you have a poem, that’s wonderful. Ok everyone quiet down, please give Joshua your respect, it takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of a group.

Out of shock and curiosity they actually shut up and sat waiting for Joshua to begin. He was shaking and looking back and forth across the room, fiddling with the untucked corner of his uniform shirt, Is it Ok if I read it sitting down Mrs. Hammer? Ready to accommodate anything to get some participation, I ran to get him a spare from the back.

Once seated in the chair, ninth grader Josh began to read very quietly something I never could have expected:  

  •  
    • You surely are rewarded when you do good deeds,
    • The distance and the time is what determines the speed.
    • I can write any poem and nobody’s stopping me,
    • The speed and where the object’s going is what determines velocity.
    • When I got home and wrote this poem it took me over an hour,
    • But the share of work that I do is what determines my power.
    • I thank my mom for this talent, I know that she’s missing me.
    • Watts converted to a bulb is what can give electricity.
    • I’m a very smart boy but I’m not always right,
    • Electric current and the heat is what can give you a light.
    • It’s been a fresh start for me since I moved to this town,
    • Any funnel shaped object amplifies any sound.
    • I don’t ask for nothing more if I already had it,
    • A force attracted to another is what can give you a magnet.
    • The study of psychology is like the way we behave,
    • Movement of energy can also form as a wave.
    • Energy that can make a photon never look back at the past because you gotta move on.
    • I’m goin work my way in life from the bottom to the top,
    • A lot of things we use today are powered by watts.
    • I’ve been through hard times sometimes I’m weakened and hurt,
    • Energy use what you do is then converted to work.

That went above and beyond all of our expectations. Everyone clapped and cheered, patted him on the back. I told him I would certainly give him extra credit points on his quiz for that performance. But the really bonus, I think, was the effect his poem had on my class. The fact that one of them had produced something impressive, made from his own thoughts, you could just tell that a light bulb of possibility turned on inside their heads. I hoped they were thinking, if quiet little Josh had that in him, I wonder what I could do? So that was the highlight of my day, first period, then it was all downhill from there, the bitching nearly gnawing my ear holes into caverns. But be encouraged, there are a few, a happy few, among us that give me hope that I’m not wasting my breath on frozen statues.

So all in all, I’m doing well, Karl-Peter is my rock and shelter and the “only one who really understands” what it’s like to be me right now. I’m drinking a lot of red wine, bread is still my primary food group, and I have upped my running habits to about 20+ miles a week exploring all of the ins and outs of New Orleans by jogging shoe. To my students, I am now The Hammer, because I actually give homework and tests, to my administrators I am “a pain in the ass, the impatient one” because it makes them feel bad that I am scurrying to fix their blunders while they are dawdling in the office, and to my coworkers, I am a fellow Warrior. My fellow teachers are the most beautiful part of this city. Most of us are out of towners who have been imported thinking we can make a difference. We each exchange that kamakazee eye contact while standing in the copy line (on days the machine works) that seems to say, Are you crazy, what the heck are you still doing here? This is insane. And then we very calmly, knowingly, we make our copies and head back to our dilapidated classrooms to face another day of insanity. The next morning, everyone comes back, and I think we’re all a little pleasantly surprised to be surrounded by so many persistent, sacrificial, well-intentioned, crazy people (myself included). We all agree that no normal person would ever put up with such sordid professional conditions, under such negative circumstances. And so there is this breathe of beautiful respect that literally inspires each other, we teachers who continue to fight arm and arm to educate the New Orleans youth, with no support from the higher ups, merely each other. Rabouin High School is the closest I may ever get to a war zone, and honestly, I do feel as though I have fought a battle by the end of every day.

People keep saying it will get better with time. I wonder if they mean “easier” because after awhile you stop caring and stop trying to make a difference. If that’s the case, then I don’t ever want it to get “better”—I’d like to see my students succeed first, the district to get their act together and on par with rest of the country, and then I’ll take a break and stop panicking that the future is doomed.

Filed under: religion,

6 Responses

  1. hughstan says:

    An amazing, challenging and inspirational story of what Christ can do in the lives of those dedicated to Him.

    And a fscinating and worrying background to what is going on in New Orleans.

    Am I free to also ‘hack’ this story?

  2. Eugene,
    Thank you for sharing this and for being part of our small gathering Sunday night.

  3. daniel so says:

    Eugene — Thanks for passing along this story. It is stunning in its honesty, hopeful without being saccharine. There was a tiny resurgence of articles being written around the two-year anniversary of Katrina (some of which provided some helpful overviews and big picture thoughts for me), but this story is much more real to me because it shows what everyday life on the ground is like there.

    It really is a thing of beauty when people follow Jesus right into the thick of the mess, torches lit, and refuse to stop pointing toward hope.

  4. Janet says:

    What transpired in New Orleans is one of the greatest tragedies of modern US history. We let that happen during our watch.

  5. Mrs.K. says:

    Wow! What a woman! What a teacher! The world (in particular, the western world – the US and Canada) needs more like this. I have seen this attitude from kids all over the place; it does not exist only in places like New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York – it exists here in Fort St. John, British Columbia, the oil and gas town in the far cold north of BC. I hope that someday, when my kids don’t need me at home, I can be that kind of teacher and be a missionary just by teaching in a public school. You are right, too, that many of us need to listen God’s calling to lead ordinary lives full of mission work – even if that mission work is hanging out with the guys in the body shop or giving change at Wal Mart.

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