Children of hope

“I’m getting pretty bored of not having school.”

This simple statement by Cecilia Tisserand, whose anticipation of entering the second grade at her beloved Lusher elementary school in 2005 was washed away by Hurricane Katrina, helped spark the idea for a remarkable school for children affected by the storm that hit New Orleans two years ago next week.

A group of 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, the idea was for the school to help 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.

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, watched family members die or waded 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 quite 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.

“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.

There is much that is hopeful in the book, but there are also heart-wrenching moments, both on a personal level for the Tisserand family and their friends and 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.”

“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.”