Sunday, August 17, 2014

NOLA July, 2008

I spent the month of July, 2008 in the city of New Orleans. My purpose there was to work. At the time, I was involved in a project for a company that made library and textbook management software. In the Recovery School District of New Orleans, they had (they said) over 300,000 books to be entered into the system and subsequently barcoded at about 12 different sites. This wasn't unusual, especially for large school districts, but what was different was that schools were closing and merging, even while we were there. Another difference is that normally there would be people like me to lead the project, then temps were hired who did the actual barcoding. In this case, some bright bulb decided HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS could do this job just as well! Oh, and we're picking them up on a bus, so the day will start about an hour and a half late, end another hour and a half early, and if we have to switch schools when we're done with one, that will be another hour wait, but it was very important we finish on schedule. It wasn't pretty. Did I mention the vast majority of the schools weren't air conditioned? In July. In NEW ORLEANS?!

In retrospect, it's probably good the workers were high school kids. None of the schools we went to had done any organizing, even though they were told to by the district, and these kids had to search for, then heft huge piles of textbooks from various rooms to a holding area in order to get accurate counts and get everything encoded. These boys, 16, 17, and 18, were all Black. They had strong backs and youthful faces, and I teased them about being able to tell their football coach they'd done weight training for a month. They were getting paid $9/hour, good money for their ages. There were girls too, but over the course of the month, I found most of the people whom I worked well with were the boys, so most became "my" team members.

I still remember these boys. Kaelaun, whom we all fought over, because he was so particular about his work, with the cinnamon colored dreds, sinewy muscles of a young man in his prime with incongruous freckles sprinkled across his nose. Edward, with the beautiful green eyes, who at 16 had come out as gay, a difficult thing in the Black community, but was still a terrible flirt with the girls. Duane, whom I had to keep a watchful eye on, or he'd find a stack of books to hide behind and fall asleep. And Jamal. Oh, Jamal was my favorite. Other team members at my level didn't want him, because he wasn't quiet. He was twitchy, energetic, always rapping a little softly to himself. Unlike the other boys, he dressed for this hot and dirty work in khakis and polo shirts, because his girlfriend was on the project too, and he had a round head, like Charlie Brown. His movements made me think of my own son, who was 8 at the time. I let Jamal bring in an mp3 player, but I told him if it got too loud, or work didn't get done, he'd be forced to listen to MY ipod the next day, and I had country, opera, bagpipe music, no rap, though. He always followed my rules. If I needed something, I asked him, and he did it, no complaints. One day, he was assigned to another team, and the next day, he asked with a hurt look why I didn't want him. I had to reassure him it was an error. From then on, every morning when we assigned teams, he would announce he was on "Miss Donna's" team and stand next to me, hands on my shoulders, already a head taller than my 5'5" at 16.

Midway through were assigned to John McDonogh High School, known as John Mac to the neighborhood, where I had to fight with security to the point of calling the school district to be allowed to bring my much-needed scissors into the school. I guess I should have known it was a tough school then, but honestly, it looked like every other neighborhood in NOLA, some empty houses with FEMA symbols on the outsides, some renovated, some getting worked on, people on porches. There was a luncheonette a block away I walked to for air one sunny day at lunch time. I walked in, and all the student workers on my team were there.  I started to walk back to the school, and Jamal appeared, suddenly desiring to walk back with me. We talked of things we had in common, grandmothers who'd helped raise us, fathers who were absent, scholarships that were needed to get to college, and he was simply good company. It wasn't until later that day, when I returned to my hotel, where the staff had taken to asking where I'd been that day, did I realize I was in one of the roughest schools in existence.

I think about Jamal a lot, as I watch my son inch closer and closer to Jamal's age then. I wonder if he ever got to LSU, how long he and his girlfriend lasted, if he kept the promise he made to me to always use protection and not have a baby until after he finished college (I liked him THAT much, I felt compelled to have that discussion). Mostly, these days, I wonder if he's still alive. I realize, when I talk to my son, that I don't have to have the kinds of conversations Jamal's grandmother had with him at 13. I don't have to tell my son that even twilight hours aren't safe to skateboard to the store for the contraband energy drinks he likes so much. I don't have to tell him he is immediately under suspicion because of the color of his skin. I also don't have to worry when he goes to the pool with his friends or plays outside with Nerf guns, pretending to be zombies, that some police officer or neighborhood do-gooder might see the plastic gun that spews only soft arrows as a threat to life and limb and lay him on the ground in a pool of his own blood. Those aren't conversations I have to have, simply because my son is white. They're conversations no one should have to have, and it needs to end. I wish I could know if Jamal is safe today, but really, there's only a 50/50 shot, and that saddens me to no end.

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