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Back to School

Learning from Katrina.



Michael Tisserand didn't wait for Hurricane Katrina to hit New Orleans. He left town with his two children and headed due west for Carencro, Louisiana. Tisserand's wife, Tami, joined them the next evening. And by the following morning, August 29, 2005, Tisserand believed the worst was behind him. We know, of course, it was not — not for the Tisserands as a family and not for New Orleans as a city.

But Michael and Tami Tisserand wasted no time getting their children into school — a makeshift grade school in a former accounting office in nearby New Iberia headed by a remarkable teacher from New Orleans: Paul Reynaud. The name of the school: Sugarcane Academy. Tisserand has named his first-person account of the months following Katrina Sugarcane Academy (Harcourt) too, and its subtitle says a lot: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a School To Remember.

Sugarcane wasn't the only school established just days after Katrina struck, and Tisserand, former editor of Gambit Weekly, New Orleans' alternative newsweekly, reports on them too: a one-room schoolhouse inside Lafayette's Cajundome, where refugees were housed; the Katrina Kids Project organized at the Reliant Center and Astrodome in Houston; and in New Orleans itself, the St. Bernard Unified School.

"A place of healing as well as a place for learning" is how Tisserand described Sugarcane in a recent interview with the Flyer. The same could be said for each of the emergency schools profiled in Sugarcane Academy. But Reynaud is Tisserand's main hero in these pages.

"He's an unassuming guy," Tisserand said of Reynaud. "He'd never want to be a school superintendent, and he's not into No Child Left Behind 'benchmarks.' At Sugarcane, he was teaching the traditional subjects, but everything reflected the times those kids were living through. His level of intuition with children ... it's one of those things that makes a teacher great."

And great Reynaud was at getting his students to open up in the wake of Katrina.

"You can't just ask kids how they're doing," Tisserand said. "They think in terms of pictures, stories. Paul showed me that. But I worry about the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress. Kids don't just suffer in response to an event like a flood. It's all those 'spinoff' events: relocation, the stress at home and school, divorce.

"For kids, I think Katrina's just starting. And that's my goal in Sugarcane Academy: remind readers who may have Katrina fatigue that we're talking about people, talking about kids. Katrina isn't something that happened one week in September. It's still going on."

Still going on if you consider New Orleans' rebuilt levees, which, according to Tisserand, have been brought back to "failure level." And still going on if you consider New Orleans' level of anxiety, which, again according to Tisserand, "hangs like a cloud over the city." But Tisserand, who today lives in Evanston, Illinois, has only praise for New Orleans' citizens:

"There are no bystanders in New Orleans. Anything positive that's happened has happened on the community level. New Orleanians, across the board, are more civically engaged than any community I've seen. It's a fully alive city in that way but a city still as unprotected as ever. The forces of inertia — governmental inertia — are so great that it's always a battle not to feel hopeless and helpless."

Raising the twin issues of hopelessness and helplessness, as Tisserand learned from Reynaud, can help. Listening to readers on Tisserand's book tour has helped. (In fact, in the words of the author, it's saving on his therapy bills.) Just don't talk to him (too much) about FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, or George W. Bush. He'd rather focus on two positives: tenacity and creativity. He saw both of them at work at Sugarcane Academy. They're both at work, to judge from Sugarcane Academy, in the city Michael Tisserand once called home.

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