New York Times Student Journalism Institute, May 26, 2009
By Yamiche Alcindor
Moments before graduation last week, a teary-eyed Rochelle Smothers said she could not help but think about her hurricane-ravaged home and the moments she had shared with her brother, her best friend.
Four years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward, where she lived, and two years after her 19-year-old brother was fatally shot, Smothers readied herself to file into New Hope Baptist Church in New Orleans. She had finally fulfilled her brother’s last wish: She was graduating as valedictorian; she was not a victim.
“It made me want success even more, seeing everything we worked for go down the drain,” she said. “We didn’t quit. We didn’t give up. We didn’t drop out after the storm, after everything we lost.”
With diplomas in hand, the Class of 2009, the Katrina Class, celebrated the end of four turbulent years.
Their stories, of high school freshmen thrust into Hurricane Katrina, are riddled with frequent transfers, periods out of school and long journeys home.
On Friday afternoon, loud choruses of happy laughter filled New Hope Baptist as nearly 400 family members and friends of George Washington Carver High School’s graduating class packed the small church’s pews and aisles. Students, in hunter green caps and gowns, happily strolled across a makeshift stage in front of the pulpit.
Latecomers, who in a rush double-parked their cars, were shunted into the balcony, babies and balloons in hand. Many leaned over the railing to get a view of the seniors.
Smothers, 17, had fled New Orleans the Saturday before Katrina, just two weeks after her first day at New Technology High School. Four months later, she returned to Louisiana from school in Texas, attending in succession Old Perry Walker High School, Sarah T. Reed High School, and finally Carver.
“We lost everything, but I wouldn’t let that bring me down,” Smothers said. “To see on the news, how my neighborhood and houses were gone. It was emotional but instead of me crying and being bad and fighting in school I turned it around to being a good thing.”
Councilwoman Cynthia Willard–Lewis, George Washington Carver’s commencement speaker, summed up the students’ experience.
“This is the first graduating class that has withstood the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, that survived mandatory evacuations for Hurricane Gustav, that excelled despite the fact that they had to study in toxic FEMA trailers that got moved from one city to another city, that lost their friends, that lost their loved ones. But they never lost their desire to succeed and to achieve.”
Brodrick Antoine, Smother’s classmate at Carver, spent a week after the storm with his mother, younger sister and older brother living in their Chevy Suburban outside New Orleans. “We were stuffed up in there-packed in.”
After a week of homelessness, they tried to return to their Gentilly home. They made it as far as one of the bridges into the city. “We sat on the bridge for a minute, and the water was rising up so we went back. It was like at the bumper of a car, and after awhile the water was over the hood,” he said.
Reality set in after four hours on the bridge.
“Life is very short,” he said.
His family settled in Ohio, where he attended school for four months. He returned to Carver High to start his sophomore year.
For Smothers, adjustment to school in Texas came quickly. Within weeks, she rose to the top of her class.
Others did not make out so well.
Nicolas Bijou, 18, vividly remembers fighting his way through school in Houston. One afternoon, a group of students from New Orleans confronted a group of Texas students after a white student called a black student from New Orleans “the N-word.”
“Conflict, I would say, arose just because we were there,” he said.
Soon after, he moved to Slidell, La., where he enrolled in school. Eventually, he made it back to St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, an all-male predominately black high school, for his junior year. His Katrina lessons remain with him.
“It’s a ‘been there, done that’ type of thing,” he said. “It’s like if you can overcome Katrina, the worst natural disaster to happen on American soil, if you can overcome such a big obstacle, there’s no telling how many milestones or obstacles you can surpass.”
Most students found that friends drew them back.
“We always kept in touch from state to state,” Smothers said. “We all came back together.”
“These kids cried every day begging their parents to bring them back,” said Paula Lincoln, an administrator at South Plaquemines High School. “Their parents lived in FEMA trailers so these kids could come back to school. We wouldn’t have had a high school if it wasn’t for this class.”
Lakein Andry of Buras found her way back from Nacogdoches, Texas. She left two days before the storm.
On the trip to Texas, Andry, 17, sat in the passenger side of her mother’s 1999 blue Chevy Cavalier watching people frantically call loved ones. The 24-hour drive to Texas – it usually takes seven – passed slowly.
“The ride was horrible,” said Andry. “I thought I was in a dream and I really wanted to be in a dream but it wasn’t.”
Then a freshman at Buras High School, she learned the storm was coming at her school’s jamboree, an exhibition football game against the school’s traditional rival.
“It makes me feel really sad that Katrina took a lot of my friends and family away, but it’s getting better now,” said Andry, who attended three schools before landing at South Plaquemines. “I have new friends.”
Some of her new friends now were students who sat in the bleachers across the field from her at the jamboree.
South Plaquemines has become home to students from three schools: Buras High School, Port Sulphur High school and Boothville-Venice High School. After Katrina, South Plaquemines opened as a consolidated school offering area students a chance to return home.
At first, it operated as three schools in one, said Lincoln. Eventually, the ice broke. “They worked that out themselves – this class,” Lincoln said. “They just got to know each other. They bonded and became one class. They set a precedent that is one school.”
Last Friday, just before entering New Hope Baptist Church, Smothers reflected on her late brother’s dreams for her.
“My brother always told me that he wanted to see me graduate at the top of my class,” she said. But in 2007, a gunman killed Dorrel Williams.
“I’m turning it into something good. Instead of me crying, I’m going to smile,” she said.
Smothers now has her own dreams to fulfill. Next year, she will be a freshman at Southern University majoring in criminal justice. She hopes to become a lawyer.
Attempting to hold back tears, Smothers entered the church through a space created by Carver supporters who cheered on her class.
“We made it,” she said just moments before the processional. “That’s what makes us so different.”