A group of New Orleans families who evacuated to the Lafayette-New Iberia area enlisted Paul Reynaud, a first-grade teacher at Lusher, to organize a one-room schoolhouse -- named Sugarcane Academy by its young students -- to help their children regain some normalcy through the uncertain months ahead. Author and former Gambit Weekly editor Michael Tisserand chronicles this school and other efforts like it in Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-struck Students Created a School to Remember (A Harvest Paperback Original, Harcourt Trade Publishers, July 2007, $13).
It's more than just a story about a school. It focuses on the varied experiences of New Orleans' youngsters, both those who evacuated before the storm and others who stayed to be plucked from rooftops, watch family members die or wade through floodwaters to land in the hellish environs of the Superdome or Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. It tells of the efforts of adults, particularly teachers from New Orleans, who sought out the displaced children to help them cope with their losses.
Sugarcane Academy also is a very personal memoir of the Tisserand family's efforts to reclaim a place in New Orleans and their painful decision to move to Evanston, Ill., outside of Chicago. Tisserand has remained very attached to New Orleans -- he still considers it home -- visits often and writes about the city and its recovery for various media.
"One of the things I want to communicate to people outside of New Orleans and Louisiana is that this hurricane is ongoing," he says. "I do think that anyone who went through this and hopes to remain tied to New Orleans is responsible for the rebuilding just like people in New Orleans are.
"When you're living [outside Louisiana], that just means you have to endure endless conversations and some well-meaning but clueless questions like, 'Is there still floodwater in the French Quarter?' and people who don't think of it as primarily a manmade disaster." He refers, of course, to the failure of the U.S. Corps of Engineers-built levee system that flooded 80 percent of the city and killed more than a thousand people.
The stories Tisserand relates give the reader insight into the turmoil and experiences felt by many New Orleans residents as they endured a long evacuation and the heartache encountered by those who returned to the city.
In November 2005, the vast majority of the city still smelled like dead fish and old garbage. The new cityscape of yellowish brown waterlines and bright red search-and-rescue markings imprinted itself on your brain. You saw it again when you closed your eyes at night to sleep. You drove through the neighborhoods, tracking the progress of your personal landmarks. The first time I was in the city, I passed our favorite local ice cream store, Angelo BrocatoÕs, its large sign crashed on the sidewalk in front of the store. Weeks later, I noticed that its display cases, once filled with tiramisu and Neapolitans and swans made of ice cream and pastry shells, were pushed to the curb, cracked and dirty. Old candy spilled out of filthy trays. In the weeks to follow, the shop stood quiet and boarded, betraying no secrets about its future.
Around it, the Mid-City neighborhood was in darkness. Most of the city was in darkness. Uptown became known as the Sliver by the River. We also called it, bitterly, the Isle of Denial, because you would attempt to forget what had happened for the length of a dinner, or a glass of wine, or a game of tag at the park. It could be an unbearable feeling to drive from lit-up neighborhoods into dark neighborhoods, and back again. In November, when people began putting up Christmas lights on the Uptown side of the chasm, the changeover from light to darkness became even more surreal.
"My readership, I think, is somebody who wants to know how it feels to go through this kind of experience: to evacuate your city, try to figure out what happened to it and make the decision to leave it," Tisserand says. "My hope in the book is to remind people that people who didn't go through this experience don't really know what it's like."
There is much that is hopeful in the book, but there also are a lot of heart-wrenching moments, both on a personal level for the Tisserand family and their friends but also in the voices of other traumatized children. Many of them found a way to communicate their pain through art, their stories relayed through scenes of little boxes with off-kilter triangle roofs surrounded by swirling water. Helping the children find a way to relate their experiences, fears and losses is an important part of the healing process, Tisserand says.
"What people do respond to is the innocence and vulnerability of children, the fierce devotion of parents and teachers," he says. "That's why, in addition to Sugarcane, I took several field trips to St. Bernard Parish and Houston and the Cajundome (in Lafayette) to show that it wasn't exclusively us and Sugarcane Academy."
Those visits, he says, underscore the value of art projects as a way to help kids deal with their trauma and the need for continuing crisis counseling in New Orleans. "There needs to be a federally coordinated effort to help the kids who went though this tragedy, really through multiple tragedies, from living in FEMA parks and shelters; losing family, friends and relatives; the breakup of family units; and finding the school system in disarray," Tisserand says. "It hasn't happened, that's for sure."
Part of the reason for Sugarcane was to keep the children, most of whom had been friends in New Orleans, together, Tisserand says. "To have these kids together means a lot. To have to live among people that don't have this frame of reference that New Orleanians have right now is very difficult. A lot of people are sympathetic to the Katrina cause -- the wetlands, the levees -- but they don't feel it in the same way.
"As long as the levees and the wetlands are in the state they are in, you don't know when the next bomb is coming. When people ask me how New Orleanians are doing, I tell them that People who love New Orleans are never going to do that well until the levees are rebuilt and the wetlands are restored."