New Orleans, 2009
I wonder if the real reason we are here is to help solve the little problems, one by one. To treat each one as its own essential potential for growth and learning. No individual problem is unsolvable-it is when we combine several together that we feel helpless, or hopeless. Conversely, the biggest accomplishments, when broken down into a step-by-step process, are conceivable: nothing is impossible. That for me is the lesson after volunteering in New Orleans, and working for five full days to share music with some fantastic kids.
New Orleans is the cultural heart of this country. It’s not just all the great music around which the city pulses, though it is definitely the music. It is also the pride of everyone who comes from there; it is the food, the way of life, the style, the history, and in the many problems the city has as well.
Having visited only twice, I am not able to describe this city, which can only be experienced by being there, living there. But I will say that until I first went to New Orleans, I did not feel that I knew America. It’s not all pretty; but it is so full of culture, full of life, full of music, full of tradition and style that it throws into sharp relief much of the rest of the country, and the overflowing cultural life of the town, the sense of style and class made me proud in a different way of my country.
The opportunity to go down came from my church singing position at Trinity Wall Street, organized by two colleagues, Nicole Palmer and Molly Quinn. They had both been down previously and dreamt up the idea of the choir helping with a summer music camp for kids in the Lower Ninth Ward.
I was hesitant to go for two reasons. One is that I do work with kids for a living. I go into schools and spend varying amounts of time in residencies working with kids helping them to write their own music. Some are great young musicians, some can’t read music, but we always get something great from them. At the end of a long year, I was tired, exhausted, done, ready for summer. The other reason I didn’t want to go is that it takes a lot of energy to do one of these trips. The rest of life fades away, one loses all correspondence, and there’s no way of doing one’s own work. And this summer is one of several big composition projects. So I protested, and delayed my decision indefinitely.
But a colleague described what it’s like to volunteer; that it’s rewarding personally, that it’s something that gives back more than you give out, that it reaffirms what we’re doing here in this life. I began to think it over, and while the work I do is good for kids, is always welcomed in schools, and is something that I come home after a long day knowing I’ve done something good in the world-it was not volunteering. And I realized I had hardly ever volunteered in my life. Donate to charity? Yes, a bit. But never a soup kitchen, rarely anything at all. So much energy spent getting ahead, raising money for my projects, earning enough to live in an expensive city.
And I am inspired by President Obama’s call for youth to volunteer for their country-not just in the Army, but locally. That every high school student should volunteer some considerable amount of their time in order to graduate high school.
So I decided to go, and give something back.
By going to the Lower Ninth Ward, we were going to the place of greatest media concentration, and what has become emblematic about the city in the eyes of the nation, so it’s important to remember that the Lower Ninth was not the only area affected by the hurricane, and it is not the only area that remains as devastated by it. But All Souls happens to be the first Episcopal mission in that area of the city, and so that is where we spent the most time.
Something I didn’t realize about volunteering is that it gives back far more than we give into it. To have the chance to do something that helps someone else, to come into a situation where kids are excited to learn, where they are bused in every day to come to camp on time, where their families are assisted so that they can be there regularly-that is already so much. I remember a year or so ago, Anne Mallonee, who is the Vicar at Trinity Wall Street, gave a sermon where she very practically laid out some figures about satisfaction in life, and said that in overwhelming fashion, those that volunteer are more satisfied with their lives than those that don’t. I know that the few friends of mine who have volunteered substantial amounts of time feel nothing but satisfaction about that work.
I say all this with apprehension, because I am a firm believer in ‘don’t let the right hand know what the left is doing.’ I think that if you pray, do it privately; I think when you give, do it privately. And one of the consistent things I found while I was down there was that everyone who was volunteering, across the board, refused to take credit for what they were doing. For everyone, it was an acknowledgement of the magnitude of what others were doing; of the small amount that they were capable of on their own; of the enormity of what remains to be done. So I am very aware that what we did is a small drop in what these kids need in their lives, and such a brief glimmer in what the volunteers down there are doing on a daily basis-and consistency is what those kids need more than anything. The people who are there day in and day out, who are consistent role models for the kids, who are dedicating their lives to rebuilding, they are the heroes.
In teaching, a great lesson is centered around asking the right question at just the right time. As a teacher, I live for the moment in a lesson when we can ask an open-ended question, one that no one has a definitive answer to, but that gets us to think deeply, and ask it. As a student, one can find these questions challenging, and they are not always welcome, but if it is a good question, it will outlast the classroom, and might be something that keeps getting asked. I remember a course I took in college, and introduction to Art History, where the young professor asked us, early on, “What is Art?” It was such an old, hackneyed, beat-up question; but it guided the way we learned that semester, and it is a question we never stop asking-and it is a question that we revise and revisit our answer to year by year.
I stayed up half the night before our first lesson trying to imagine how we would engage with the kids. What would be the best warm-up activity, something that would get us started in the right direction? What would the kids be like? Would they be willing to participate? Would their attendance be scattered? Would they be excited to participate? Would there be only 4, or more than 20? Would they be on time or late, how much time should the warm-up take, how creative should we/could we get, how physical, would the film crew be filming or participating, what would the physical set up be?
We arrived, the place was different than I had imagined, open dry-wall, dust and plaster many places, a beautiful sanctuary set up with chairs and an altar and a green Episcopal altar cloth, big Paschal candles, flags, nice blue chairs, and total chaos regarding kids and volunteers. There were four different groups there, preparing to spread out over the Lower Ninth and rebuild? One group was to reorganize huge trunks that had been donated by a mega-church filled with electronic equipment; another group was painting the office. Piles of computers lay in the back, along with a play-area of old mattresses and couches. Functional bathrooms with no light, the only way to see either from work-lights or the bright 9am sun that streamed through the doorways.
We made name-tags for everyone, and as nine o’clock approached, began to gather them towards the careful circle of chairs we had assembled.
And then, with these careful plans all ready to go, all the students there on time, our circle of chairs formed, the students all joining in one place, a volunteer group from the Buffalo area started a prayer service that they said would take 15 or 20 minutes. What should we do? Join in? Or leave and go elsewhere? All of the adults looked to each other, and an impulse was sent out the door-so, within five minutes, we had re-gathered outside, in the astounding sunshine, to do a warm up with no chairs, and piles of lumber around us.
As it turned out, the activity was a big success-to say our names and the gesture of an activity we love to do. I think I can still recite all the gestures now, a week later. We did get to know each other, and we learned each other’s names. It was a high-energy choice for the hot sun, and it involved a lot of repetition, starting with Chris, the highest-energy of the group, doing an elaborate basketball move, and several students making a gesture of ‘nothing,’ some for ‘sleep,’ and Ivan’s infamous ‘click, click’ for the internet. When we went back inside, we were drenched with sweat, and there was of course no air-conditioning, and no lights on inside. But halfway through our first lesson, the lights came on, and everyone started to applaud.
How many months had Father Wright petitioned the city for the ability to have electricity in that abandoned Wallgreen’s? And finally, after two years, it was on. An auspicious and positive sign for us all.
A week after the fact, most of my memories of the teaching have lumped together. The first day was rather difficult; the second was a dream day. The third day was the hardest; the fourth was incredible, the last day a good focused preparation for the concert, all our routines flowing smoothly. In general, it was beautiful for me to watch my colleagues get more and more comfortable with the kids, and the teaching become more interactive, more socratic, more engaged. Part of this was our increased consistency in our teaching-what level of attention we expected, how we dealt with erratic behavior, knowing the kids and what their particularities were. Part of it was for some of them experience in the classroom. And part of it was that the kids got more convinced of the work we were doing, and were more and more willing to participate.
Teaching these kids reminded me of the need for fairness. One of the first interactions we had with the kids was before our first class, when kids were haphazardly throwing themselves on us, hugging, or play-fighting, or shaking hands. Nacole had already forged interactions with some of them; and they were using her iPhone. Soon many of us had lent them our technologically-savvy phones, and they were blissed-out using them.
During our planning session that night, we agreed to not bring our phones in-it seemed a recipe for unfairness. But on the second day, I came in to discover a few phones already being used-and while I tried to explain to Ivan that it wasn’t fair to lend phones only to some and not others, I realized we couldn’t be inconsistent with whose phones were out. So I lent him my phone again, and during every free break, all of my electronics were in constant circulation.
This need for fairness came under the gravest attack on the last day, when Ivan, who had been one of the only students to ask me for my computer, asked that day later than some other students. The performance was coming up in under an hour, and my computer was being passed from one student to another in the back room. But Ivan didn’t find it fair. He asked me to take the computer from them, that it was his turn. I went to the back room, and found Father Matt presiding over a very orderly group of kids watching something on the screen; so I went back to Ivan and told him it was only fair for them to use it, as he had been using it so much. He walked away from me crying, and I so I went after him, sat down with him, and asked him why he was upset. “I want to use the internet,” he said. I asked him if he understood why I had lent the computer to the other students instead, and he said no. I asked him if he thought I wasn’t honoring our friendship by not letting him use it, and he said yes. I found Wesley, who said we could use his computer, and Ivan was appeased. I began to think again about fairness. It’s not always logical; and we can’t change the rules once they’ve been set. For Ivan. who cared about being on the internet more than anyone I’ve ever met, fair was for him to use my equipment, since he had done so every day, every hour preceding this.
One of the premises I tried to operate under during that time was to “not be stingy with the gifts we bring.” I think our fancy technology, which we take for granted, fell into that category. The kids wanted to know how much they cost, these computers and phones, how much per month. I told them, and then tried to imagine what those numbers would mean to a kid of nine. When in life do we come to understand the value of money? In think when we start earning it, and spending our own. And some people, I would think, never do understand the value of a dollar.
Along the same lines, immediately before we went out for our Friday performance, the guitar teacher, Earlette, became very upset about Isam’s t shirt. He was wearing his own black t-shirt, while everyone else wore the brightly colored shirts we had brought. Someone had decided to make an exception, and I told Earlette that it was like this when we taught in a group-I couldn’t contradict another teacher’s decision, because it wouldn’t be consistent. (Even if the inconsistency was the cause of this problem!) We had been marveling at Isam’s transformation all week, and his participation in the concert was fantastic.
The choir members who volunteered in New Orleans gathered recently to watch the DVD of the students’ concert, and it brought that week back in full force. It is hard to believe what we did in five days, or really what they did in five days, since they were the ones that learned an entire concert of music. Everyone sang, and used their full voice. They presented themselves well, they delivered the music with passion, they bowed; for us the whole concert was a dream come true.
The girls-Erenisha, Devinisha, and Pooh, sang beautifully, Isam played a heroic violin solo of “when the saints,” the recorder all stars played jazz solos (about which more later). And the piece that the kids had written themselves was performed by their teachers, ending with the whole audience singing along to the final song, with the original lyrics “In this room there is a lot of togetherness.” This was the piece they called “Together Forever/Aeropostale: with love from the Lower Ninth Ward.”
One of the beautiful moments of this concert was standing off to the side of the stage and watching the recorder all-stars playing an original blues with Ben, and taking their first flight playing solos on the recorder. We had gotten to know these kids well, we had been working with them and playing with them and holding them when they were sick, keeping them focused in class and roughhousing when class was done. But then they started playing their solos, and they were flying. They were up somewhere soaring and they were playing real music. They each had their own ideas, they each took it to a different place. I felt like I was witnessing that moment when a chick is pushed out of the nest-I was watching their first public performance, and their response was to take out these wings that had been somewhere, hidden, and start to fly.
Driving across the city every day, we began to find the scenes more normal. The spray-painted house-fronts with numbers of date of inspection, NE for “No Entry,” a number for the number of bodies found inside. TFW for toxic flood water. Still, four years later, we see spray paint from the winter of 2005 on the outside of houses. The neighborhoods became more familiar, the circuitous routes that one takes to get from Maiterie to the Lower Ninth. We became accustomed to the drawbridge on St. Claude avenue, the rapid shifts between houses from block to block. The empty lots, the public art displaying the water levels during the flood. The po’boy joints, people walking in the heat, the late night listening to jazz on Frenchmen-these became a part of us as well as the kids and the music and the church community.
The concert that we gave at Trinity New Orleans is going to be released as a CD, the profits from which will go towards the All Souls mission. As soon as I have news about how to buy that, I will. In the meantime, visit the links below for more information.