Thursday, December 13, 2007

Incomplete Thoughts on the Closing of Craig Elementary

Posted By on Thu, Dec 13, 2007 at 6:08 PM

Until recently I taught in the Treme, beside Armstrong Park, at Craig Elementary. I’m not certified, just an artist who, after-school, teaches a writing course that’s disguised as a rap music class, to trick New Orleans kid into writing, an act they generally hate. I don’t know much about Craig, beyond what I observed between 2:30 and 5p.m., Monday through Thursday for a year. I do know it was an historic school, and had recently been part of the Recovery School District, and that people I briefly encountered there – most of them leaving for the day just as I arrived – blamed every misstep on RSD. Though the Craig kids I worked with possessed remarkably positive attitudes (their high-pitched joi de vive got them in trouble more than any negativity), the majority read and wrote at a kindergarten or pre-kindergarten level. This, though most were smart as hell. Of the many illiterate kids I’ve met in New Orleans, very few seemed to suffer any learning disability. Usually it’s just obvious that the adults in their lives let them down.

Anyway, as I’m leaving Craig some days before Thanksgiving, one of the school’s official teachers casually alerts me in passing, “Oh, make sure and tell your boss, Craig is closing down as of tomorrow, you hear?”

“Like shutting down? For good?”

“Shutting down for a while. Cause of mold. Tell your boss.”

“My boss doesn’t know?”

“No. No one knows. We just found out today. Right?” She rolled her eyes, and kept walking.

“Shouldn’t my boss be telling me this?” I shouted after her, then proceeded into the cafeteria (now seemingly more dank), where the other stressed-out after-school artists signed-out the last of the kids. “Did y’all know the school is closing tomorrow?” I asked the adults.

“Yeah, they just came in here and told me,” growled my supervisor, a several-generation resident of Treme. “And they said: ‘please don’t tell your boss Craig’s closing’.”

“Please don’t tell? They told me to make sure and please tell our boss.”

“It’s because you’re white!” she snapped, not angry with me in particular, still… “They told little white you, to go tell our little white boss. That makes sense!”

It comes to this so very easily. White and Black people here, all racially shell-shocked. For example, many of the teachers I’ve spoken to in Treme honestly and loudly believe that the levees were dynamited. It’s easily understood and traced back to its roots, this type of surreal racial paranoia. But among teachers? Eating Manchu’s take-out lunch with them in the lounge, whenever the dynamite topic’s come up, so many are so stubborn on this point that I’ve never even gotten the chance to interject my stock response: “If someone were trying to screw over Black New Orleanians, they did a really, really sloppy job.”

Still, I’d previously thought Craig Elementary was building a good head of academic steam; special attention was finally being paid. This past summer-school session, every Craig classroom of eight or more kids boasted between three and five adults. Almost ridiculous, but still good to see. And in the weeks before we shut down, Craig was keeping half its students and its very best teachers upstairs after-school, for special (and seemingly very effective) reading and writing tutoring. Kids now weren’t allowed to take my rap class without meeting their grade level expectations. Which left me with very, very few young MCs. But at least recently, whenever I encountered a third-grader who really wanted to make beats, but couldn’t write even a couplet, I now had somewhere to send them. Last year I had nowhere to send them, and I couldn’t just put my curriculum aside and start from scratch teaching them to read, and nothing makes you feel more helpless than that, or more negative about this city.

But in light of Craig’s improvements, mold closed it mysteriously down. Teachers and parents grumble conspiracy theories pitting 'the powers that be' against ‘the oldest black neighborhood in America’ as their kids are bussed out to a school in New Orleans East. Me and my ‘Music Writing’ class have been moved all the way to Martin Behrman Elementary on the West Bank, where everything is far more organized than Craig, and the kids can read and write like crazy. My first day at Behrman, a 1st grade boy tapped me with a pencil and asked, “How you spell fridgerater?”

“Well, though we all say fridgerater,” I did not patronize, “the word is actually, refrigerator. And I think if you slow down and sound it out – re…fridge…er…a…tor – you can spell it by yourself.” Which he immediately did, even, somehow, including that tricky d. Why are West Bank schools better? I’d previously spent a semester at Alice Harte out there, and it too was shockingly superior to any of the four Orleans Parish schools I’ve struggled in. Is the difference just the length of the Mississippi River Bridge? Or the fact that Behrman and Harte are both charter schools? People have told me it RSD’s fault. But it wasn’t like Craig Elementary kids were great readers before the storm, just Katrina knocked it out of them…

But all this to say: Behrman Elementary is a good school. I am thankful to be there, and to see at least this example of New Orleans kids getting proper education. And after-school next Wednesday the 19th, we will be hosting a “Winter Holiday” performance. Coach Mike – also an indy rap artist and a breakdancer on Jackson Square – will do a gymnastics presentation, with kids flipping through hula-hoops etc. There will be a psychedelic, anti-littering puppetshow, plants the kids grew, some visual art, and my students will perform an original New Orleans Christmas song they still haven’t finished writing, plus traditional Christmas carols for which we’ve made beats on a drum machine. Contact the school for details: 324-7030

To read more about ‘Mr. Michael’s Music Writing’ class, see this Gambit article: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2006-09-12/mus_feat.php. To hear the kids’ original songs, visit http://myspace.com/mrmichaelsclass

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