Living Life SOOOO New Orleans Sunday, Mar 27 2011 

It is sometimes difficult for a newcomer to a city to determine the characteristics that set that city apart from countless others.  You tend to hear, “There’s just something about it,” a number of times before that “something” can be revealed in an eloquent, succinct statement that picks the quirks that make it great.  In my life, any attempt to describe the unique culture of a city comes down to moments, not words (surprisingly, since I do fancy myself a writer).  My freshmen year of college, sipping on a Flirtini in a lounge covered with red, plush seats and low-lighting with two of my girlfriends dressed in fashion-inspired outfits picked from the racks of H&M and topped off with brightly colored accessories purchased from vendors in Union Square, I decided I was “SOOOO New York.”  My junior year of college, sitting at a cafe on the Seine, dressed in a gray jumper with black stockings and flat ankle boots with an untranslated edition of Moliere, sipping a cafe, puffing on a cigarette and gazing at the lights reflecting in the stained glass of the Notre Dame Cathedral, I decided I was “SOOOO Paris.”  Most of these moments were contrived by a daydreaming 20-something attempting to place her life in the context of the sights and sounds around her in a foreign city.  Maybe I wasn’t able to fully articulate the characteristics of the city, but I was able to feel like I was a part of it’s culture.  I take pride in my ability to adjust to almost any large city with ease and excitement, and New Orleans is no different.

Friday night I shared a “SOOOO New Orleans” moment with my friends.  With crawfish season finally getting underway, and many TV and newspaper stories constantly reminding us of such, my boyfriend decided it was time to throw our first crawfish boil.  True New Orleans style, this party was impromptu, planned just hours before it began, with an invitation list of people I culled from my contacts in my phone, and felt like texting.  We already had the supplies for such an occasion, thanks to our shrimp boil a few weeks prior: a  crawfish pot and stand, borrowed from family members, a kerosine tank, purchased at a Rouses in Metarie, Zatarans Crab Boil seasoning, used in all boiling situations, a plastic tub to fill with ice and beers, a radio, leftover from a recent beach trip, and a table, to serve off of or munch over.

As soon as I got off work, I stopped to purchase a 12-pack of Corona (the only non-New Orleans part of the menu) and joined the Boil Master while he simmered the pot in our front yard.  With a house on St. Charles Avenue in the Lower Garden District, it is impossible to peel yourself away from sitting on the front porch and watching passersby.  While the crawfish pot simmered, neighbors walking their dogs or out for a stroll stopped by our gate: “Man, is that crawfish?  How much you pay?  Do they look good?  Man, I wish I could get some of those.  I’m jealous of y’all.”  The scent of the Zatarans is inescapable within a two block radius of any boil.

The ingredients for a crawfish boil vary, but only slightly.  For our inaugural feast, we included potatoes, garlic, lemon, lime and hot sausage to supplement the squirming critters.  A mesh sack in the corner of our porch contained the 10 lbs of still crawling crawfish, purchased just down the street.  When it came time, the Boil Master emptied the critters into the boiling water to kill, cook and absorb the spice of the Zatarans.  Just as guests were arriving, dinner was served.

Crawfish are not for everyone.  The tiny critters carry meat only in their tails, a bony, shelled part of their body.  Some people think crawfish require too much pain for little gain.  You need to consume a good dozen crawfish before feeling slightly satisfied, and that could take awhile.  Having grown up in the DC area, cracking open Maryland blue crabs with mallets and clamps my whole life, I’m always ready for the challenge.  Everyone has their own way to retrieve the delicious meat, but most people follow a similar pattern.  First, you pull off the head, claws and body.  This step always seems heartbreaking because you end up placing a piece larger than the one in your hands into the garbage.  The most adventurous, and most likely local, suck the heads before discarding the carcass to get any leftover juices and spice.  Then, you peel out the meat from the tail.  I liken it to peeling a shrimp, except the shell is a little tougher, and the spine a little bonier.  Last, you pop the sucker in your mouth and enjoy a few seconds of flavor before moving on to the next one.

We poured the contents of the boil pot onto the table and let our friends attack.  Although many crawfish boils feature guests eating directly off the table, we allowed plates along with our rolls of paper towels.  Listening to a local radio station and peeling out the crawfish tails, we shared a New Orleans moment.  A Streetcar passed by, filled with tourists, who all stared eagerly in our direction.  Locals in their natural habitat.  A saxophone player walked past and saw an opportunity.  He played “While the Saints go Marching In” while standing beside our gate.  His fumbled songs gave our peeling a rhythm, while we sifted through tossed carcasses for some leftover meat.  He left with a plate, a beer and $5, and the saxophone tones were still ringing in our ears.

This was “SOOOO New Orleans”:  A casual moment, shared with friends and enjoyed by neighbors, while listening to music, eating some spicy food and drinking a beer.  If only I’d purchased Abita.

The Trashiest Party on Earth Wednesday, Mar 9 2011 

Would you want to clean that up?

My new home on the Uptown parade route on St. Charles Avenue has given me a new view on Mardi Gras Parades.  Generally, I would walk from my pristine area of Uptown on State Street, with a cooler and boxes of King Cake and Popeyes in tow, to find a spot on the parade route about an hour before the parades are scheduled to start with the other revelers.  I would then walk home through the leftover beads, plastic bags, beer cans and chicken bones.  I would return the next day without even thinking about the trash.  Where did it all go overnight?

The moment a parade ends, the crowd scatters.  Some bring along trash bags and may even throw things away in the trash cans along the parade route, but somehow the entire neutral ground (what we in New Orleans call a median strip) and street are still disgusting.  The riders on the floats are constantly unwrapping beads from plastic wrappers and throwing them in the street while they whiz by.  If you are lucky enough to be thrown an entire bag of beads or an individually wrapped bead (my personal favorite), you are quick to unwrap it and throw the trash on the ground.  It is not under malice as much as a norm.  Once it’s so dirty, what’s one more little plastic bag going to do?  Beads not thrown or picked up by scavenging kids are left in the mud along the streetcar tracks or in the road.  It’s quite the sight to see.

Once the crowd disappears and all the police and floats and vendors leave, the cleaning crew comes.  A group of about 30 to 40 inmates in jump suits walk the entire parade route with rakes.  Prison guards in cars driving slowly alongside or beside the inmates with a bullhorn bark directions at the group of mainly black inmates rake all of the beads, plastic bags and beer cans into the street.  While trying to research these inmates, I found nothing.  Where do they come from?  How do they pick which inmates get to participate?  Is it a punishment or reward?  Either way, the metal rakes are the perfect tool for ensuring each piece of trash gets kicked to the curb.  When bringing out the trash from my apartment, a friend of mine asked the landlord where it should go.  “Just put it on the curb,” she said.  “The inmates will get it.”  My friend felt bad about adding to the mess, but the jump-suited man who overheard said, “I got it.”

The inmates are just the first pass along the parade route for clean up.  Then comes the trucks, purchased or rented by the government specifically for Mardi Gras.  Actually, “Mardi Gras Clean-Up” is an important part of the city’s budget each year.  The trucks suck up all of the trash swept into the street, after three or four trucks pass by.  After the sucking trucks, come the street cleaners, which spray the street clean, hopefully getting the horse poop caused by parade members and policemen.   And finally come the clean-up men, who get anything left over in the street, on the sidewalks or on the neutral ground.  They pick up individual pieces of trash and put them in plastic bags they carry with them.

SDT is the company that won the city budget after Katrina, and is in charge of all of the cleanup in the French Quarter and beyond.  The head of the company, Sidney Torres, is an important city figure, and former reality TV star in the show “Trashmen.”  He started the company after Katrina and many say the city has never been this clean.  During a news interview during this year’s Mardi Gras, Torres thanked his men for their hard work.  “They are proud of their city and proud to keep it clean.”  On a number of occasions, I have seen city residents, myself included, thanking these workers for cleaning up their neighborhoods.  Without them, the trucks, the suckers and the inmates, my street would still be covered in trash.  Instead, it is clear.  The grass along the neutral ground no longer exists and beads still swing along the power lines and trees, but otherwise you couldn’t even tell there were thousands of people reveling for the past week right in front of my house.  If only they would clean the inside of my apartment as well…

The Greatest Free Party on Earth is Pretty Pricy Sunday, Feb 27 2011 

Free Mardi Gras Goodies

It’s Mardi Gras Season in New Orleans!  That means parades, King Cakes, parties, shut down streets, tons of tourists, drunk college kids, cook outs and beads, lots of beads.  Widely known as the greatest free party on earth, Mardi Gras has no corporate sponsors, no tickets and no real rules.  Each of the over 50 parades that roll throughout the New Orleans area feature floats, costumes, marching bands and “throws” without any charge to the spectator.  The “throws” can be anything from the traditional plastic bead necklaces to medallion coins decorated for each parade to stuffed animals to coconuts for Zulu and shoes for Muses.  The curbs of St. Charles Ave. and Canal St. are lined with people of all ages throwing their hands in the air and screaming, “Throw me something Mister.”  Despite the cheap quality and utter uselessness of these throws, the crowd keeps begging, and it’s contagious.

But with no corporate sponsors and no city funding, where does the money come from to pay for the greatest free party on earth?  The answer is New Orleanians themselves.  Each parade is organized by a Mardi Gras Krewe, or social club.  These clubs can be as exclusive and expensive as your worst neighborhood country club, or open to anyone who has the dough.  Rex, the oldest Krewe that rolls on Mardi Gras Day with a televised appearance by the mayor, contains members passed on through generations, and a wait list generations long.  Orpheus, the krewe started by Harry Connick, Jr. famous for its musical themes, is open to anyone willing to foot the bill.  The price tag on a spot on a Mardi Gras Float varies for each Krewe, but it ranges from $1,000 to $6,000 in order to pay for the float decorations, the costumes, the throws and the bands.

Throw me somthing mister!

Each parade is required to have at least 7 community bands, and pays a pretty big price for the larger, well-known New Orleans high school bands.  The smaller parades, like the ones that rolled this past Friday and Saturday, featured more middle school bands, suburban housewife dance teams and bands from outside New Orleans.  Saturday night’s Pygmalion Parade had St. Augustine’s Marching 100, an award-winning New Orleans private high school band that has graduated a number of local and national musicians.  As the Purple and Gold members of the marching 100  approached the I-10 overpass before hitting Lee Circle, the drum majors blew their whistles announcing it’s time to break it down.  The thundering echo of the brass and drums shook the crowd while the musicians swayed in unison to a perfectly performed beat.  This was worth the big pay check to the school.

Mardi Gras is more than just a big party and excuse for child-like shenanigans.  It is a way for the upper class, riding on the floats and throwing the parades, to give back to the community.  Paying the bands supports the music program and other programs in local schools, but the parades themselves provide funding opportunities for businesses around the city and enterprising entrepreneurs.  During the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, schools and churches along the parade route set up trailers to sell food and drinks, at escalated prices, to the parade watcher.  Sacred Heart, a private school at the start of the parade route, sells hot dogs, gumbo, white russians, daiquiris and red beans and rice to raise money for the school.  A couple beside Lee Circle were selling Appletinis from their side yard.  A family opened up their front lawn for parking, at $10 a pop.

The party is free, for the parade watcher, but that watcher will also end up spending a ton on food, drinks and parking while enjoying the parade, paid for by fellow New Orleans citizens.  It is a party that New Orleanians throw for their city, giving back to communities and attracting tourists to spend big bucks in business.

Be a Tourist in Your City! (I sound like a city tourism ad) Monday, Feb 7 2011 

The Peacemaker Po Boy

I had two of my best friends from college visit me this weekend and they made me realize something; I need to be a tourist more often.  As you can probably tell from my past blog posts, I know how to have a good time in New Orleans.  I try to attend as many festivals and special events as I possibly can fit around my work schedule and I eat out quite frequently, but there are a few things that I hardly ever do in this city unless people are visiting me.

My friends flew in late Friday night, and I met them at the airport with drinks aplenty.  The daiquiris came from a shop down the street from me on St. Charles that I walk past every day, and never go inside.  After speaking with an obvious regular, who alerted me not only about the offerings, but also the special mixes you can make, I ordered a “Victoria’s Secret,” strawberry and pina colada mixed with 190 Octane.  To anyone not from New Orleans, 190 Octane is wicked strong.  The Victoria Secrets got the job done.

Awaiting my guests at my apartment was a New Orleans welcome table with two king cakes, two kinds of Zapps chips and two six-packs of Abita (I’m really indecisive).  It was my first King Cake purchase and Abita Strawberry and Mardi Gras Bock purchase of the season.  These items are only available around Mardi Gras time and through part of the spring in New Orleans.  All three came out almost a month ago.  Had my guests not been visiting, I probably wouldn’t have bought these items, and now kind of wish I hadn’t because I have a ton of leftovers.

The first stop on our New Orleans tour with the Bulldog bar, on Magazine Street, which I do frequent, but then to Miss Maes, which I haven’t been to in way too long, considering how inexpensive their drinks are.  Although the price did increase from $1 to $2 for a mixed drink, it is still worth it.  And the last stop was F&M’s, a terrible frat boy-filled dive bar on Tchoupitoulas with three rooms of hip hop, classic rock and pop music blaring until all hours of the night.  I used to come to F&Ms almost every weekend for dancing and the famous Cheese Fries.  Smothered in shredded cheddar cheese, the spiced waffle fries are crunchy always satisfying.  Most of my nights these days do not end with shaking my hair to Wila Smith and munching on cheese fries until 4 am.  Such a shame.

After a brief fight with my job, I was able to have my first Saturday off since before I got hired in October.  The sunny, but chilly day proved perfect for a stroll down Magazine Street (to my car which I was unable to drive home the night before).  The sidewalks were covered with locals peering into shops, sharing stories from the previous evening and sipping coffee.  Our walk ended at Mahoney’s Po Boys.  Although this was NOT  included in the two separate Po Boy competitions on the Travel Channel and Food Network, Mahoney’s is known by many as one of the best in the city.  The hour wait for our Po Boys proved nearly fatal for our hungover bodies, but it was completely worth it.  The Peacemaker (pictured above) has fried oysters with cheddar cheese and bacon on a Liedenheimer loaf, dressed with mayonnaise, lettuce, pickles and tomato.  The French bread loaf is crispy, but soft to bite.  The spiced batter on the oysters exploded with flavor and was a perfect mix with the bacon and cheddar.  My friends had similar religious experiences with their over-stuffed fried shrimp po boys.  Mahoney’s is not even 10 minutes from my house and yet this was only my second time going there.  Po boys in general are not a huge part of my diet.  While I have one occasionally from a random restaurant, I never go to the places known for them.  This must change.

In the evening, we headed to Blue Nile on Frenchmen street to see the Soul Rebels, a brass band that plays every Thursday night and I love.  Blue Nile is a music club that I frequent mainly because the cover is low or nonexistent and the show is usually pretty good.  Unfortunately, the show was sold out by the time we arrived, so we had to venture down the street to DBA.  This music venue is known for having the best new bands and best beer selection in the city.  I never come to this venue unless forced by friends because it always has a cover, which tends to be at least $10.  But this Saturday I was happy to pay $10 to see the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in a clean, open bar with no smoking.  Definitely worth the cover.

After our po boy feast on Saturday, I wanted to send my friends home with another helping from another famous New Orleans po boy shop.  Parkway Deli was featured on the food competition shows for both its Roast Beef Po Boy and Shrimp Po Boy.  The bar along bayou St. John was close to the high school I used to teach at, so we got carry out occasionally to have for lunch.  If one of my coworkers was heading to Parkway, he would end up with 11 different orders for po boys to bring back with him.  It’s that good.  Being the indecisive person that I am, I ordered the Surf and Turf, which features the famous roast beef AND shrimp.  The breading on the shrimp at Parkway has just as much flavor, but more spice than the ones at Mahoney’s.  Although I enjoyed the mix, I wish I had just gotten one or the other, because two great things can sometimes just make a good.

After feasting on po boys, dancing until 4 am and rocking to brass bands at DBA, I remembered how great this city is even more.  I need to appreciate the things that I will not be able to get once I leave, and try to not let the price tag or crowds deter me.

Mardi Gras Bands: More than a good show Wednesday, Jan 26 2011 

High school marching bands are the heart of every Mardi Gras parade.  Although each parade watcher prays to leave with a fist full of goodies and neck covered in beads, the bands are the spirit and soul of the parade.  The whistle from an upcoming drum major signals a break in the outstretched arms, reaching for prizes, and a time to break it down.  While watching a group of students pass by, entertaining my tiny stretch of the parade for a few minutes, it’s easy to forget the hard work and dedication each member of the band, cheerleaders and dance team must do for months.

For over 150 years, Mardi Gras has been a huge part of New Orleans culture.  The season, beginning in January and ending on Mardi Gras Day, generally towards to end of February to beginning of March, is comprised of over 50 parades in the Greater New Orleans area.  And each of these parades is required by law to include 7 community bands.  Mardi Gras has no sponsors, no official director and no cover charge.  The government wanted to ensure the event stayed local and community-focused, and so requires high school bands, and paying them pretty nicely.  High school bands in New Orleans go for $2,300 per parade.  Most schools, like the one I used to teach at, will end up marching in about 10 parades each season.  That’s a great fundraiser for the public school system.  Bands from outside the city, and private school bands, tend to carry a smaller pay check, but certain public school bands are too popular for parade marshals to deny.

While this may seem like a nice chunk of change for the schools, at the end of the season, very little of it goes directly to the school.  To keep the students in the parade, the schools must pay for bus transportation to and from each parade, food and drinks for the students before and during the parade and the instruments and uniforms for the students.  Each student also ends up forking over around $300 to $500 in order to participate in the parade, for cleaning band uniforms and instruments and tailoring dance costumes and matching weaves.  Many students will have fundraisers, for example selling suppers to teachers and staff at the school, in order to raise the dough.  For some, the price tag makes marching impossible, and the months of practice for moot.

Starting at the beginning of the year, school band directors are already thinking about Mardi Gras.  Football games and assemblies are just practice for the big show.  Bands might arrange classics, like “When the Saints Come Marching In,” crowd favorites, like “Stand Up and Get Crunk,” or current hip hop songs.  Football games give them the opportunity to practice the notes and the moves, while being stationary.  After Christmas, the outdoor practices begin.  After school, bands gather in school parking lots or neighborhood streets to practice marching together, stopping together, playing together and breaking it down together.

At New Orleans schools, having a band is not a choice as much as a necessity.  The schools need the money to support school programs and the publicity to attract students.  New Orleans school system has a program called “School Choice” where students and parents can pick any school them want to attend in the school system.  There are no more districts and neighborhoods to determine where you attend.  The purpose of the system is to give students who may live in an area with a bad school the opportunity to attend any school they would like and to weed out bad schools.  I can’t think of many cities where public schools are advertised on banners, street posters, billboards, newspaper adds and commercials more than any private schools.  For a school to survive, it needs to attract the attention of students and parents.  And what better way of doing that than shaking the streets of New Orleans with rocking drums, banging base and soulful trumpets.

High school bands also give students new opportunities inside the classroom.  The band teacher at my former school did wonders with the special needs students I couldn’t seem to control.  A student who would show up 20 minutes late to my class, only be able to sit for about 10 minutes, then walk around class bothering students and myself could magically stand up straight, march in a line and play the trumpet beautifully for 5 miles of parade.  A student who struggled with reading, and was the brunt of many jokes from his peers, would proudly wear his marching boots to school, toting his horn under his arm.  The band and performance teams also create school leaders.  The drum major, the dance team captain and majorettes captain are in charge of the moves of the entire school during their march.  The drum major signals when to play a song.  The captains decide when to perform which dance moves, while the dancers and majorettes follow behind.  There are very few possibilities of being leaders within the traditional classroom, but outside events create and strengthen student leaders.

This Mardi Gras, while students march, dance and step along St. Charles Ave., cheer for their hard work, their importance to the city and their stamina to step over 50 miles of road during the season.

Teacher Counseling, Buffas Healing Wednesday, Jan 19 2011 

This is a compilation of many Fridays with some of my favorite tidbits.  I am going to start changing the names of the people involved because they might not be too happy about having their drunken dialogue posted online.

“I caught the bitch talking during the midterm exam 5 times,” I announce to the crowd before jumping from the table and moving to the bar.  “I love you Holly,” I turn my attention to the amazing bartender who just opened and slammed my third Abita Amber beer on the ledge at Buffas without me even asking.  Buffas bar is in the perfect location for our weekly teacher meetings: just down the street from our school, but far enough and in a different enough neighborhood that we do not need to fear bumping into anyone who might be disturbed by our dialogue.  It’s about this time, my third beer in, that the stories get a little more extreme, the language a little harsher.

“When I heard her the fifth time, after telling her multiple times that I would take her test if she spoke again, I took her test.”  I am talking about my hell class, 3rd period Algebra 1 with seniors who don’t need it, special needs students who struggle with it and new students who rush through it.  “She actually took out her cell phone and called her mom, in the middle of the fucking exam, to complain about me.”  At this point my arms are flailing around, as I lunge over the table to emphasize my story.  “So I kicked her out.”

“Fuckers,” responded one of my coworkers who has seen the terror of this class.  “What an asshole,” said another, their comforting curse words calming my insanity and erasing a bit of the day.

“Then the bitch actually tried to come back into the class to complete her exam, apologizing.  I don’t know what the fuck she was thinking.  I said not until I speak with her mother.  We’ll see it that ever happens.”  Speaking to a parent is one of the tools that Teach for America, coworkers, friends and family always tell you to use as a time bomb for your students.  For me, this bomb was usually a dud.  Even if there was an initial fear in the student of what may happen, the likelihood of the teacher actually speaking with the correct parent or person is very low, and thus the tool very weak.

“I saw him grab the paper from my room and rush down the stairs,” explained one teacher after one of our many fire scares.  This was the last one, when one of the culprits was actually caught and the security triumphant for once.  The fires started with students lighting the trash cans on fire, then the paper towel dispensers, with at least one fire a week, and a number of full evacuations of the building during about 3 months of school.  During some, we were able to reenter the building after only waiting in the streets for a couple of hours.  During others, we had to stay in the gym for the rest of the day or send the kids home as the fire department cleaned and cleared the halls.

“That son of a bitch,” I yell.  “He played me so good.”  The fire demon was a student of mine who had previously been suspended for something, but returned to school that day to have me write a letter of recommendation for him for the judge.  Of course, I did, because he was a decent, respectful student who did fairly well in my class.  I later discovered a pile of old tests and study guides hidden in his desk, tools for cheating.

“Shots!” yells one coworker, who always seems to be the instigator of such bad decisions.  The happy hour drinks, starting as soon as school ends at 4, quickly turn into late-night trips to bourbon and black outs.  The Friday before any break, Christmas, Spring, Summer, is particularly dangerous.  After a round of shots, and a few more Abita Beers hit the table, te conversations get a little nuttier.

Here come the impressions.  One lovely teacher loves to talk shit about one student with disabilities.  This asshole has a little limp and one hand falls limp, but that never stops him from fighting, skipping class, talking shit and being an all-around jerk to teachers and students.  While the impressions of him are hilarious, I know the sober-me would be officially offended.

The story exchange during these happy hours is the only way I was able to survive teaching.  Invitations to Buffas began the second I met my coworkers, and continued every week.  The teachers would gather to let off some steam and discuss issues at the school in a relaxed atmosphere, without any non teachers.  Most of our conversations outside people would not understand.  We are name droppers, but not of famous people, unless these kids become famous with their mug shots in the paper.  We are intense business people, but our business is with kids.  We are alcoholics, but only on Fridays, during the school year.  We reek of smoke, we have less money and we have full stomachs, but our minds are at ease, our anxiety slowly lessens and our weekends seem somehow livable, until the Sunday night anxiety returns.

Temptation of the Senses: Taste Monday, Jan 3 2011 

I’m taking a break from my depressing writing about teaching to discuss why I will never be able to stay fit while living in New Orleans.  This is probably the first year of my adult life that “Getting in Shape” is not one of my New Year’s Resolutions.  I decided that in this battle of Man vs. Food, Food won, and will win until I leave New Orleans or get my taste buds and nose removed.  For the past few months, I have been walking to and from work instead of taking the streetcar.  The switch mainly occurred because the streetcar is unreliable and I wanted to get my legs back into the shape they were in when I walked all over the place in New York City.  The only obstacle to walking to work is rain and wind, and the damage both do to my hair.  There really is no obstacle to me walking home except for the terrible temptations that face me on the way.

While walking from Canal Street to my apartment by First Street on St. Charles, I pass a number of delicious establishments.  First is Herbsaint, Chef Donald Link’s casual, yet upscale restaurant and bar.  I actually have to walk through the outdoor tables of finely dressed New Orleanians’ exciting conversations in order to get home.  I casual glance at the tables at every opportunity and accidentally read the menu one day.  Pork Belly with Louisiana Sticky Rice Cake, Duck Leg Confit with Dirty Rice and Beef Short Rib with Salsa Verde tempt me.  On particularly hard days at work, I consider stopping for a bite at the bar with a Pimms Cup or Herbsaint Champagne Cocktail.  I generally remember the lack of funds attached to my Chase card and move on.

The next stop does not carry the same excuse.  The scent of Popeyes Fried Chicken and Red Beans & Rice reminds me of stopping by the Silver Spring, Maryland location with my father, where I demanded we get non-spicy chicken because my sister liked spicy.  Little did I know that Popeyes is a New Orleans brand, founded by Al Copeland, carrying only New Orleans favorites on the menu.  The only red beans and rice I ever tried before moving to New Orleans was Popeyes, and still is.  I attribute that to the way I eat their Red Beans and Rice: either mixed with pieces of fried skin and clumps of biscuit or atop a fried chicken and biscuit sandwich.  My previous excuse of no money is quickly erased by the $2.99 advertisements adorning the entrance directly in my path.

The scent of the next temptation begins right after Popeyes, an continues for a good block.  Miyako is New Orleans’ excuse for Bennihana.  The Hibachi and Sushi restaurant tastes exactly like the Tokyo Japanese Steakhouse I go to with my mom in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.  The cooked-to-order fried rice, vegetables and protein of choice carry a flavor only matched by Hibachi restaurants with a telling smell.  I unfortunately went to this restaurant one night with my boyfriend, which just confirmed my suspicions that would be delicious.

Down the street is Voo Doo BBQ, once my remedy for a bad day of teaching, now my periodic answer to a quick food option.  The BBQ chicken platter, with a quarter, roasted chicken, two sides of corn pudding and macaroni and cheese and corn bread for only $6.99 is enough food for two meals, but I usually consume in one.  Although I convince myself each time that I will save for lunch the next day, the food is gone in a few bites.

For a couple blocks, I have a break from the torment.  I pass other restaurants, such as St Charles Tavern and Slice, but their foods don’t have the Siren Song scent that pulls me towards the others.  Then comes one of the strongest.  The nostalgia connected to the scent of Houstons kills me every time.  I used to eat at the Houstons in Bethesda, Maryland almost every Sunday in high school with my best friend, Colie.  We split a Spinach Artichoke Dip, she got the Veggie Burger and I got the classic Burger.  Each time I pass, I remember how great these Sundays were, and how much I love their burgers.

The last temptation is Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro.  Generally I am more tempted by their $5 martinis then their food, but luckily their happy hour ends just as I get out of work 30 minutes down St. Charles.  During all of my walks I actually am able to resist stopping at one of these places, but I arrive home starving and ready to stuff my face.  Sometimes I stop by Subway, my low-fat answer to fast food.  I get the Sweet Onion Teriyaki Sandwich, which is on the low fat menu, but the extra mozzarella cheese and mayonnaise I get on the sandwich probably changes that.  The last time I ordered, the person behind the counter actually commended me on my creation, with lettuce, tomato, green peppers and cucumbers.

So, I am not going to pretend that I will lose weight this year.  I will still make some futile attempts, but my stomach, mouth and nose will not allow it.  And now I’m going to make myself a Hot Sausage Patty Sandwich to satisfy the drool that accumulated while writing this piece.

The Quitting Point Wednesday, Dec 29 2010 

A lung flies past my head, dangerously close.  “That’s enough!” I yell at the students in the back corner of the classroom.  “You four need to stop.”  The four I am referring to had decided to do some impromptu surgeries on the plastic human body in the back of the classroom and were throwing the lungs, heart, stomach and intestines at each other.  The one thrown in my direction was an accident, I tell myself.

“What do you mean, ‘You Four,'” huffs Anthony.  “I wasn’t doing anything.”  I recognize the steam filling up in his body.  He’s getting ready to blow, just like a Mikey Mouse Cartoon character’s red head spewing steam above it.  “Anthony, I apologize if you were not involved,” I say in my calm, attempting to be soothing teacher voice.  He begins flapping his arms, yelling and letting the steam reach almost to his eyebrows.  The rest of the class is divided.  That’s right, there are 25 other students in the room witnessing this event.  Half are unaware of the situation, and the other half are laughing at both my and Anthony’s reactions.  I hear mumbles of, “Oh, he wasn’t doing anything Ms. Carroll,” and such, but I can tell Anthony is about to blow.  I ask him to step outside to calm down and remind the class again that the Power Up is on the board.

I join Anthony outside the classroom to help him calm down.  His anger spouts are easy to spot, hard to predict, and impossible to end.  Once a week he attends Anger Management classes with our school Social Worker, but sometimes I think these classes are excuses for rowdy students to get out of class.  I ask Anthony outside the classroom to explain my actions and speak with him rationally as an attempt to calm him down.  I completely made up this technique because I never received any training or information on how to handle such students.  I keep the door slightly ajar and speak with Anthony.  “I’m sorry I made the mistake if you were not involved, but you need to calm down.”  He responds with a number of angry shouts, hands in the air, eyes squinted and mouth blown out so I can hardly recognize this occasionally interested, always inquisitive student.  “You always are trying to get my in trouble,” he blurts.  “You’re not in trouble,” I try to explain.  “I just want you to calm down before you come back to class.”

At this moment, I begin to hear the sounds of students not working on an assignment inside my classroom.  Luckily, the teacher in the classroom next door, my God send, Doc, steps out and tries to calm Anthony down while I attend to my class.  Class is a term I use very loosely in this situation.  “You need help, Ms. Carroll,” I hear over the intercom the second I enter the room.  I glare at the students.  The trash cans on each desk, whose futile purpose is to keep students from putting trash in the desk drawers, have all been emptied on my floor.  Sun flower seeds, Cheetos bag wrappers, pencil shavings and pieces of paper adorn my floor.  Bertha, 3 time Biology student who either skips class, sleeps through class or makes class a living hell, is laughing hysterically.  “These kids are crazy, Ms. Carroll,” she screams while leaning back in her stool with a loud cackle.  “Did you call the office?” I ask, staring around the room in awe.  I feel my steam rising, my face changing, my heart racing.  I step outside to see the security guard approaching.  “You called for help Ms. Carroll?” he asks.  “No, they did,” I respond.  “Can you, I just can’t be in there right now, can you deal with them?” I try to say.  The steam reached the top, but my cartoon character spurts water, tears streaming down my face while I attempt to hold them back and regain control.

I step outside the building, breathing heavily, sucking it back inside, trying to ease the tears and frustrations.  I pat my face in hopes of reducing the redness before I return to the classroom.  I don’t want them to know I cried.  I don’t want them to see my weakness.  I take a deep breath and go back into the classroom.  I write an assignment on the board, silent, knowing that if I speak the steam will return.  “You can teach yourselves the material, then,” I mumble while unlocking the laptop cart in the back of the classroom.  “And someone clean this up right now!” I almost make out, but the “right now” has a twinge of fear, a slight quiver of steam.  “Go get a broom,” says the security guard with his much more booming presence.  I start a few students out on their computers, answering their millions of inane questions.  “Can I go to the bathroom?”  “Why can’t we listen to music while we work?”  “I don’t get this Ms. Carroll.”  “Why do we have to do this?”

To be continued…..

The Breaking Point Monday, Dec 20 2010 

After my worst day of teaching my first year, I wrote the piece below:

During my first (and only) job interview for teaching, the interviewer, the principal of an alternative high school in New Orleans, told me a teaching strategy for these difficult schools: you need to  find something, no matter how minute and seemingly unimportant, to keep you going.  She was not the first person to tell me this theory, but she was the first to frame it as a teaching strategy instead of just a life lesson.  Every person needs to search for the good in life in order to keep going.  With every bad day, you need to find something to hold on to till the next day, to make it through the night.  For some reason, though, this idea is a necessary component in the teaching profession.

If you have a terrible lesson, if your students treat you like crap, if you feel like you are not accomplishing anything with your life, as a teacher you need to find a student from second period who finally understood the topic or the student in the hall who you do not know who said, “Good morning Ms. Carroll,” or even the encouraging words from your co workers, to make you return the next day.

As a first year teacher, these moments were few and far between.  During the first semester, the kind words of “Is there anything I can do for you, Ms. Carroll,” from a co-worker are what got me by.  It was the after school happy hours and respect for my colleagues that made me return to school day after day.  Their jobs would be harder if I was not there and so I stayed.  As the day to day got more difficult and the students drove me crazier, it was the two students in my last period who always completed their work, the projects completed by my second period and the struggling student who finally completed his work on his own in my 4th period.  And then there was my fourth period.

By far my largest class for Algebra 1, my 4th period had students from every possible grade level and every possible skill level.  I had seniors who needed this course as “Katrina Credit” because they were unable to take the course their freshman year, during the storm.  I had special needs students who could not complete multiplication tables.  I had students who were repeating this course for the 2nd, 3rd or 4th time who could not master the Algebra concepts.  And I had first time Algebra 1 students who were very quick to catch on to concepts and always completed their work.  This mixture of students proved to be lethal.  The high achieving students were bored, hated the fact that they had to take this class and constantly acted up.  The behavior problems caused me to spend more time calming them down then teaching the class.  They did not care about the class.  They were disrespectful in more ways then I ever thought possible – refusing to move their seat so I could walk by, constantly playing with their cell phones, walking out of my class, ignoring all directives from me and arguing with me about every classroom procedure I tried to put in place.  I could not take it.  This class was shredding my education beliefs and breaking my spirit every single day.  They loved to mess with me.  As I complained to other teachers and listened to their stories, I learned that I did have one thing going for me.  No matter how rude these students were to me or how much they wanted to make me mad, they never stole form me.  Other teachers had gradebooks, calculators, crayons, cell phones, iPods, keys, cars, etc. stolen from them but my students had never tried to take anything of mine (save for the occasional pencil).  I thought, “Well, I must be doing something right.  They must have some modicum of respect for me.”

When you find this item that keeps you going, you hold onto it so tightly.  You constantly reaffirm yourself with it and congratulate yourself on this tiny success, not matter how tiny or insignificant this success is.  It becomes a part of you, your daily ritual.  You walk out of school and say to yourself, “Well, they didn’t steal from me today.”  You never think about what will happen when this something, this insignificant detail about your day that has become as essential as the keys to your classroom, disappears.

If I lost the keys to my classroom, my entire day would be interrupted.  I would have to get each of my classrooms opened by an administrator, I would have to rely on others to let me into the teachers lounge and bathroom.  I would become more dependent and restless all day, praying that my students do not close the door on me while I step outside to speak with a student, because they would have the power not to let me back inside.  Losing my spirit was worse.

On the last day of class before GEE testing, I decided to sway a little to my students’ demands.  Every day they yell at me for giving too much work and trying to speak over them.  They all walked into class already complaining, saying, “I am not doing any work today Ms. Carroll.  You can’t give us work we have testing tomorrow.”  I reminded all of them that I had, in fact, not handed out one piece of work yet and they should wait until they get the work to complain.  The period was the same length as a regular class period, but the first half hour was supposed to be advisory period.  I had not received anything that I needed to present for advisory, so I told students they could chill for half an hour until class began.  And the students did.  When I started handing out work, the students revolted, but most of them completed their power up.  Then I told them the plan, while most students were still speaking and not listening.  “Listen, all you have to do today for people taking the GEE is complete this packet with review on reading graphs, a very important part of the GEE.  People who do not need to take the GEE in math, please complete your projects.”  Then, I sat down and let students do their work, occasionally walking around to see if there were any questions.  Not one student did their work.  They spoke loudly, jumping around the classroom, pretending to steal items off Mr. Huegen’s desk.  When the bell rang 20 minutes early, they students all leaped up trying to leave.  I had to stop them by standing in front of the door.  One students thought it would be funny to turn on the television in the room.  Another sat at the computer and more tried to press past me.  I looked up to see two female students filming the mess, laughing at my yelling at the students.  I told everyone they had to sit down and she had to hand me the video camera to delete the movie or else no one would leave.  SO everyone sat and I spoke to the student and deleted the movie.  Then, I told students I had an announcement and no one would leave until I completed it.  One student decided that she had had enough, since it was about 5 minutes into their lunch period, and she ran towards the door saying get out of my way ms. Carroll.  I told her she could not leave and she pushed and shoved me out of her way until she made it out of the classroom door.  Then, I turned to the rest of the students and told them the class is going to change drastically after testing.  Then I released them.

It was a terrible class period.  I was frustrated at all the students in the classroom, surprised by most of their actions.  Yes, I had had problems with these students before, but today they were just off the wall.  I began to write up the student who pushed me while Mr. Heugen came over to see who I was writing up.  After I wrote the form, on the verge, I said,  “I don’t even know why I waste my time because nothing is going to happen,” and threw the form on the floor before leaving to go to the restroom.  I sat on the toilet and let myself cry for a few seconds.  I thought to myself, “I am going to write up a few students and tell the principal if nothing happens to these students, I quit.”  Then, I got up to call the parents of the students so I could tell the administration I did so.  I went back to the class, pulled up the info on one of the students and reached into my bag to get my cell phone out of my wallet.  But there was no wallet to be found.

When your something is lost, the thing getting you through every day, you go through a few steps.  While mourning the loss of your spirit, you go through denial, anger, sadness and acceptance.  You something had been getting you through work for months.  It was true every single day.  There was no way this something could disappear now.  Now that you have taught for months, know more, understand more, your something cannot just leave you.  Then comes the anger.  Why was this happening now?  You want to get every single student back into that room and yell at all of them until the situation is fixed.  You want to arrest all of them, kill all of them, make sure you get your repercussions.  Then, you realize what this action means in the greater sense.  Your spirit has been taken, and you cry, you freak out and cry until your spirit was oozed out of your eyes and you have stomped it to death beneath your shoes.  Then you accept it.  You realize this was always going to happen and you need to just move on with your life.  You realize the something that was holding you was stupid and weak and not enough to make or break your spirit.

My eyes grew wide and my heart began to race.  I took every single item possible out of my bag and threw it all on the floor.  I searched the floor around the classroom, hoping maybe it was a practical joke.  The students were just messing with me, they didn’t actually steal from me.  After a few more futile, but desperate searches in my bag, I got angry.  I didn’t believe they would do that to me.  “I am going to get those fuckers right now,” I thought to myself and whipped out a pen and my pad.  I wrote down the names of every student in the classroom at the time, starting with the ones who pissed me off the most.  About half-way down the list, I felt the anger leaving my hands and heart.  It moved through my veins, up through my throat.  It ventured deep into the back of my head and slowly made it to right behind my eyes.  As my eyes began to swell, I knew I could not go to the Public Safety Officers (PSOs) like this.   I grabbed my list, slammed the door behind me, busted into the teachers lounge and said, “My students stole my wallet, what should I do?”  It wasn’t until my co-workers responded that the anger made its appearance.  I bent over with no control over my knees, squatted with one hand holding onto a chair and the other covering my face.  I wailed.  I cried and heaved, unable to speak.  My co-workers jumped up to comfort me.  The older black women teachers came immediately to my rescue.  One went to get me a drink, another put her arm around me and a third went downstairs to get DOC, a teacher who knows how to handle these situations.  The next few minutes were a blur, while I tried to stop crying while administrators, PSOs and fellow teachers asked me questions.

They walked me down to the office.  A few students asked what was wrong, saying, “That’s my teacher!  What happened, Ms. Carroll?”  One student said they had “Down Bad” for that.  I was still out of control.  There was no way I was going to be able to stop crying anytime soon.

Doc found my purse in a trash can, with nothing missing except for my cell phone.  I was relieved that I did not have to worry about getting new keys, new credit cards and a new purse, but then it really hit me.  The students care so little about me that they will steal something from me and throw it away.  All the teachers tried to make me feel better.  They made jokes about me drinking and needing to get a beer after work.  The nurse spoke to me, trying to make me realize where the students were coming from.  The whole time my body was quivering, my crying would not stop.  The security officers and I watched a video trying to see if we could spot anything while they brought some reliable students to their office to question them.  They all said they saw nothing.  No one ever wants to be a rat.

After that, I was broken.  I left school early, unable to stop crying enough to say one sentence, let alone a full class period.  My entire face was swollen and red from the pent up tears I had been holding in.  My one thing, my spirit that took me through each day, was only a cover on the volcano of tears that I held within.  The cap had blown and Old Faithful was flowing for good.  While one of my coworkers gathered my belongings, I made my way to my car, only after convincing my Vice Principal that I did not need anyone to drive me.  I enjoyed a brief intermission during my 10-minute drive, then collapsed in my bed, crying hysterically, harder than I ever remember crying.  My thing was gone.  And I cannot think of a new one.

The Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Ms. Carroll Friday, Dec 17 2010 

After receiving many comments from my previous Blog post “Sitting in the classroom with criminals,” I have decided (and been forced by friends and family members) to try and write more about my teaching experiences.  At this point, the only way I can conceive of writing about those two years is through vignettes of specific experiences.  Perhaps after writing a few, I will be able to step back and really write about those two years.  You may notice these posts contain some profanity, alcohol and other bad behaviors.  I do not want you (mainly my friends and family members) to be offended or shocked by my thoughts or behaviors.  I believe it is important to include all of this information because I am not the only one.  Most of the experiences, feelings and thoughts I had while teaching are common among other teachers, whether they are new Teach for America teachers or experienced veteran teachers.  I would appreciate any comments on these posts, because I hope my research (which is what I like to call the past two years) will become something some day.


“God Damnit,” I say as the yellow school bus appears in front of me, turning left onto Esplanade Avenue in the Treme.  My little blue bug is behind that school bus, which means I am late.  I am supposed to be in the cafeteria awaiting the arrival of the little horrors on that school bus by 7:00.  It is now 7:10.  I finally turn into the parking lot and gather my belongings: a laptop bag with folders of papers and my school issued laptop, three Walmart bags containing the supplies for our lab today, a subway bag with the other half of my veggie sandwich from the night before and a king cake.  “Fuck,” I mutter while trying to balance all of the above, a skill that impresses and depresses me at the same time.  I walk through the courtyard, around to the entrance of the G-building, the unhappy location of my classroom.  I attempt to ignore the screaming students, who are obviously ignoring me as I walk around their lively conversations occurring directly in the middle of the walkway.  As I approach the door, the group of football players who always gather right in my way, grows silent, as one jokester stands right in front of the door, his back facing me, pretending he did not see me approaching.

“Good morning,” I say, with a tone that really says, “Get the fuck out of my way.”  “Oh, I didn’t see you Ms. Carroll,” he says, immediately getting out of my way while his football buddies snicker.  I finagle my belongings and unlock the door, making sure to keep it locked behind me.  “You fucking dumbass.  You really think I don’t know that you do that stupid dance every day on purpose?  You are a giant piece of shit,” I think to myself, gritting my teeth while unlocking my classroom door before throwing all of my things on the desk.  I grab my notebook and some grading to entertain myself, when I get a whiff.  I roll my eyes and stomp into the hallway to the side entrance of my building where I spot four students smoking.  “Good morning gentlemen,” I say with insincere cheer.  They instantly fidget to hide all evidence.  “I have asked you so many times,” I plead.  “Please do not have this door open while you smoke outside my classroom.  It makes it smell terrible all day.”  I turn around while they mumble their retorts and I remove the little pencil stub they use to keep the door from closing and locking.  “Motherfuckers,” I wish I could scream, and slam the door.

I finally make it into the cafeteria for my morning duty, about 20 minutes late.  I walk past a few students, muttering good morning as they rush by and slide into seat across from Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Johnson, already in a heated discussion.  Every morning they talk at me about “These children” or “This school” or “that principal.”  Today’s topic is uniforms for the Mardi Gras parades.  Mrs. Johnson is in charge of the dance team, majorettes, cheerleaders and any other girls who march in the Mardi Gras Parades for our high school.  I nod in agreement as she talks about all the money and time she spent to alter the plain outfits from the catalogue into acceptable Mardi Gras costumes.  I learn that this means putting slits on the sides, adding sequence, making shawls to cover their shoulders and adding in stretchy material to make them tighter.  Then all the girls have to come up with $150 to pay for the outfits, the matching weaves and many pairs of stockings.  I wonder how the money is possible when my students refuse to purchase pens, pencils or notebooks for class and cannot come up with $5 to pay for a field trip.

With that, the bell rings, and we announce to the students that is it time for class, walking at a snail’s pace behind them as they do not even try to make it to class before the next bell rings.  I walk past the students and unlock the door to the G-Building, then my classroom.  I attach my laptop to the Promethean board and display the Power-Up activity (four questions from the previous day’s lesson the students complete at the beginning of every class).  The second bell rings, and I wait as it takes another 10 minutes for students to arrive to class, get their notebooks, and begin the Power Up.  It’s 7:45 and I have 35 minutes until the bell rings again and the student rush out of my room.  Not enough time to complete the activity hidden in the four Walmart bags on my desk.  “God Damnit,” I think, as I walk over to the board to begin going over the Power Up questions.


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