Monday, August 14, 2006

Part 16: More thrills, chills, and spills than Disney World.

Recap: Last time, we had a smaller, but (mostly) very fun Mardi Gras experience, and things seemed to be looking up.

But now it was April, and we were still moving my dad's reopening date back. He had originally expected to be open by mid-February. And now it was April. Things felt bleaker once more.

And it was my second sinus infection of the year. It was right on the heels of the first. Fun.

April 1 was on a Saturday. Apparently it was a tradition at school to really "get" the principal. He went to Tulane University and is, therefore, a huge Tulane fan. Tulane fans tend to not be LSU fans. So, since his children's school was destroyed by the storm, and they were attending our school for the year, his children were pawns in the game.

One of the teachers had a pet snake in her classroom, and the youngest son loved it. So she had him pose with a picture that said, "Tigers" and wrapped the snake around him. The older son was handed a sign that said, "Geaux."

Quick lesson in south Louisiana culture: Many Cajun surnames end in "-eaux." Boudreaux, Thibodaux, Gautreaux, etc. This letter configuration makes an "o" sound. And so, many people find it "fun" to make words that end in an "o" sound end in "-eaux." One such instance is LSU, which has signs and merchandise labelled "Geaux Tigers!" End note.

The older son was only in 4th grade and didn't know the "Geaux" thing. The younger son was in kindergarten, and he couldn't read "tigers" yet. They had no idea what they were being asked to do.

A big banner, decorated by the teacher's clss was hung outside the building, anf the two pictures of the sons with the signs flanked it. His office was covered in taunting handmade signs, courtesy of that class. He was a better sport about it than his sons, who, upon being told why their pictures were hanging up, went to the teacher and yelled, "YOU USED US!" Haha.

April 6 was our 4th wedding anniversary. I went to work and had a normal day, and then came home. My mom had stayed home from work that day with an intestinal problem. I got home from work and found her car gone. I called her cell and had no answer. Mark and I were going out to dinner somewhere that night, and so I set about getting ready after leaving her a voice mail, accusing her of being a faker.

As I got out of the shower, the phone rang. It was my father, informing me that my mother had been passing blood, and she called the gastroenterologist, who told her to get to the emergency room. She had to drive herself there because my dad couldn't leave work. Something big was going on. He met her there later. Come to find out, all of her digestive problems, which developed in the last month or so prior, were being caused by, not only acid reflux, but an ulcer. Neither condition was around more than a few months. Once more, my family felt the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. My mom was being kept at least overnight for observations, we were not to worry, and we were to have a nice time at dinner.

Mark came home with news of where we would be eating. His radio station is a news-talk-sports format, and they have a food critic, Tom Fitzmorris. He asked Tom for a nice restaurant in a certain price range in Metairie. Tom immediately named Impastato's. What's more, he called in the reservations for us. So at 8, we went to enjoy our evening.

First, they had a nice table ready for us. Then, as we were ordering dinner, one of the staff came over to congratulate us on our anniversary and to present us with a bottle of champagne. It was very sweet, but very good. A little while later, they came over and presented me with a dozen red roses. The food came and was absolutely delicious. It sort of reminded me of Tony Angelo's, a place that was cattycorner from our house. It was a multiple-course Italian meal that was to die for. I still remember my meal: an appetizer of shrimp au gratin, a salad, panéed veal topped with crabmeat, artichokes, and shrimp and crawfish with a divine sauce on it, pasta alfredo, and, for dessert, a slice or Oreo cheesecake. I don't remember what Mark had...I think it was soft-shell crabs with a topping similar to mine. Either way, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. All night, there was a jazz combo with an elderly man singing for them. While we were waiting for our desserts, the old man came over to our table, carrying a single peach rose, which happens to be my favorite. He greeted us, wished us a happy anniversary, and asked if he could sing a song for us. He asked if we'd ever seen "Sleepless in Seattle," then told us that the song was in that movie. He sang, "When I Fall in Love." It was a highly embarrassing moment, as he made us hold hands across the table. We wanted to die from holding in our laughter. It was all very nice, though, even if I could have done without the serenade. In all, it was a very lovely evening. My dad left me a voice mail asking if we could stop by the hospital to bring my mom's car home, so we did.

My mom ended up with some trouble, so she stayed in the hospital a little longer than expected. She didn't come home until either Sunday or Monday. It was a gloomy period, yet again.

Ah, April. Formerly a month to enjoy, now tainted with my mom's illness, as well as living with my parents, still. And then, when I thought it couldn't get any worse, I almost lost one of the most important parts of my being able to go on after Katrina.

We'd had our observations and performance reviews. We were supposed to have our contracts soon. But the contracts never came.

They called a staff meeting, and things seemed bleak. Through my friend, who was on the high school staff, I learned that the Archdiocese wanted to "restructure" the school, and that the principal for the high school, a man I was excited to be working under the next school year, would be leaving. See, in my evaluation session, I was awarded the chance to stay at the High School's campus. Same president, different principal. And as much as I enjoyed working for the Academy's principal, I'd heard good things about working under the High School's. And now that I knew which campus was employing me the next year, we could look at neighborhoods to move to.

However, a lot of speculation lead to a lot of fear. All we knew was that when the superintendant of Catholic schools came, trouble was ahead. What made it worse was that our administration honestly didn't know what was going to happen to us. They were kept out of the loop.

The day of the meeting finally arrived, and no one was in a good mood. We knew people were getting the axe. But who?

The meeting happened, and it was worse than we thought.

Our president called the meeting "one big, not funny episode of 'Seinfeld.'" She rules. Anyway, it was, as you may have guessed, a meeting about nothing. But it wasn't exactly nothing. It was a lot of bad stuff, but we had almost as many questions after as we did before.

Fr. M started the meeting saying how much he admired us, blah blah blah...and how he loves the program and always supported it 100 percent (note: he called us a program instead of a school, and he used past tense. He continued to use past tense for the first half of the meeting.)

For the first 10 minutes of talking about nothing, really, it sounded like everyone was out of a job. This is where we learned that apparently the administration was telling us the truth, because they had genuine reactions to everything he said.

Then he said that what he was saying wasn't affecting the majority of the room. And we started suspecting that he meant the high school. And he was.

They opened the school this year. No building costs, per se, because they took over an abandoned school. But it needed Internet wiring, phone lines, fire drills, P.A. system, paint, remodeling in places, repairs in places, etc. Plus furniture. Plus supplies. Grand total of opening costs, post-Katrina? 1.5 million. Not bad, right?

Well, in the Post-K world, huge deal, apparently. However, you gotta spend money to make money. Pre-K (Katrina, not the grade level!) the HS had 50-something kids. Post, they had 32. Here's where the president officially stopped liking him: he said, and I quote, "That makes the per-student cost over $57,000. If you can meet the lofty goal of 65 students for next year, and that's if, then you will have a per student cost of $21,000, approximately."

First off, he said we had only 29 students. So, he was wrong there. We had 32. Second, we had accepted 66 students already for next year. I'm not so good at math, but I am pretty sure that that means that we are pretty much above that "lofty aspiration."

Second, when the Academy opened, there were 36 students. The next year, they doubled it to 60 something students. The next year, they doubled it to 120 something students. They decided doubling at that point would break them, so they took in another 60. The following year, they tried to keep it the same, but ended up with 204. This year, Pre-K, we had 230-something. Post, we had more than 100, but less than 200. We even took in a lot of students whose schools were nonexistent Post-K. And when people came back at the end of the school year from wherever they'd evacuated...who knew what would happen. Plus, we always, apparently, end up with new students registering after the first day. My 3/4 class grew by 3 kids before the storm. That was 2 weeks of school. So, the growth potential IS there.

Third, the budget projections had us paying off the start-up loan by the 5th year of existence. They told the Archdiocese that they would have it paid off by year 6, but that was a just-in-case cushion. They were expecting it no later than year 5, but, barring any more major national disasters, possibly year 4.

So he talked in circles, told us that they couldn't offer contracts to any high school employees, that it would take "several" weeks to come up with a solution. Meanwhile, our administration had been kept in the dark about everything. EVERYTHING. They truly did hear it all for the first time that day.

At this point, many people were crying. We passed around a Kleenex box. The rest were seething.

He said they were "looking at several options for a possible solution," but only told us one. And it wasn't a good one:

They wanted to make us a "School within a school" at 5 other Catholic schools in the area. Um, NO. Our kids are with us because they can't hack it in a regular learning environment. They learn differently. They need to be taught differently. And if we're a school within 5 schools, the kids will be divided. Two are single sex schools. So that right there divides them. As does geography.

Plus, where would that leave us? Yeah, we'd all find some sort of job, somewhere, eventually, but what about those kids? Who would help them? They would be labelled and ostracized. Not necessarily by the schools, but definitely by the kids. They would be looked at as special ed. And they are NOT.

So one of the teachers, whose son has dyslexia and was in 6th grade at the Academy, asked what the other options would be, because she had a very personal interest in the school. She made me cry when she asked where her son was supposed to go. She's one of my friends, and she is such an eloquent speaker. She had several people crying.

Only other option was to go K-12. But that wouldn't work. We'd need new space anyway. We're too needed, and our presence is growing in the city.

Did I mention that they cancelled a parents' meeting at the request of the Office of Catholic Schools? They feared the parents. I said unleash the parents on them. They'd see how important we are.

So then he told us he can't really answer a lot of questions and gives us about "10-15 minutes." People ask a lot of questions. The parish priest, a man he called by the wrong name the entire time, got up, near tears, and plead to let us be part of the planning process.

He also, let me note, referred to the H.S. principal by the wrong name the whole time.

He left after 5 p.m., Pres walked him out and came back. No one moved, but everyone was upset and/or angry. She came back and watched out the window as he walked away. She slammed the door on her way in. She was raging. At that moment, I truly loved her.

She said, "I told him I would be e-mailing him corrections for all of his inaccuracies."

Boo and yah.

We talked about how blindsided and hurt we felt. We started thinking of solutions. We raged. We united. It felt a little better.

Then she said that apparently, the Academy is to remain as is. And that anyone hired to teach 7/8 at the High School will slide to the Academy, so apparently, I, too, was safe. Where I'd be, I didn't know. And we wanted to start looking at houses, but couldn't apply for a loan until we knew what my salary would be next year.

As a staff, we followed Dylan Thomas' words.

We left at 6 p.m. Father was STILL THERE. Sitting in what would have been my classroom if I had stayed 3/4. When he left, we learned that the woman he talked to was a REPORTER. We assumed she was with the Archdiocesan public relations newspaper. How ballsy of him to leave us to interview, most likely about us, on our OWN CAMPUS.

They had the H.S. current staff stay behind. There is a letter. I find out later that it is basically a condensed version of what was just said regarding how the H.S. can't get contracts yet because the school and its budget are under review. Something the admin didn't know about until the meeting. Pres's eyebrows shot up when he said that.

This letter was not on letterhead. It was on regular paper. No signatures or seals or logos or anything. They passed out copies to the staff. When they finished, Pres let hers drop to the floor, while the H.S. principal crumpled his and threw it behind him.

I love this administration.

So, we didn''t really know any more than we knew that morning, other than I apparently would be employed...but where?

I was sad and furious all at once.

Jazz Fest is very close to my school, and as it falls on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, we use Jazz Fest as a chance to raise money. We sell our parking spaces for $25 per car. This is cheap, actually. We don't have school those two Fridays. We filled 88 spaces in less than 2 hours. We did it again the next Friday. And everyone who was there seemed positive that we would beat this. We just weren't sure how.

So they had the parents' meeting the next Tuesday night, and the parents, understandably, were outraged. They pulled out their checkbooks. A contractor offered his comapny's services to hold a raffle for a house gutting and sheetrocking (this, if it happened, would have been a huge success, as many homes still have not been gutted post-K). By the end of the evening, over $50,000 had been collected.

That day, there was a meeting telling us that they came up with a comprehensive plan to let the Academy return the High School's favor by hosting them under one roof for one or two years. Money was the only obstacle, other than Archdiocesan approval. Then they collected money that night, and donations were in full-force.

At the teacher appreciation luncheon, they announced that money was no longer an obstacle to moving and keeping us operable next year. The only issue is having the Archdiocese okay the plan to move us together. As one teacher said, "He'd better have a damned good reason for teling us no."

However, it would take a few million to keep us at our current site. Sigh.

The next week was the 7/8 grade class trip. Our high schoolers were supposed to go on a school retreat in Alabama near Tennessee at a sleepaway camp. The were scheduled to leave Monday, August 29, 2005. The day Katrina hit New Orleans. Obviously, they cancelled the trip. Thank goodness they were smart enough for that...

Our 7/8 trip was supposed to be swimming with the manatees in Florida -- something I would have killed to do! But they feared parents wouldn't be able to afford a trip like that, so they picked a less-expensive idea: joining the high school in Alabama. Two seperate trips at one location at the same time.

The trip was a lot of fun. We took a train for 8 hours, which was followed by a two-hour bus ride. It was in the mountains, and it was so nic to see green spaces and trees that weren't creacked or twisted or dead from hurricane-force winds. It was like paradise. The last night of the trip, we had a campfire with a singalong, and the rain held out just long enough for us all to have a magical night of bonding as one.

But I'm a little ahead of myself....

Our president and the Academy's president DROVE to the camp to hand-deliver some news.


First off, we were all going to be okay. The parents and several corporations/anonymous donors stepped up. I don't know the total now, but the $100,000 it would take to move the High School to the Academy was no longer an issue. The H.S. would occupy the second floor of the Academy with 7th and 8th. The lower grades will take over some storage space and church-owned rooms downstairs. We would all be together again for one, maybe two years, and then, the Archdiocese said we can pick a campus to move to.

That in and of itself is incredibly amazing. BUT....

We got our very own patron Saint. Yes, I capitalized that one word for a reason. As you may have heard, the Saints drafted Reggie Bush this year. He is committed to helping rebuild our city, and wanted to help a school damaged by Katrina. While our physical campus was fine, our school itself was falling victim 8 months later. One of the kindergarten parents got in touch with the Saints and Reggie, and he checked out our website and talked to people, and came to the conclusion that a school like ours, which was open for a grand total of 8 days before Katrina hit, could not fall victim to her again. He pledged matching funds for most of what the parents have raised, and also a long-term commitment/partnership to our school!!!!!

WE'RE ALL GOING TO BE OKAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

May 15 was a special day....Reggie Bush Day....we were covered in ESPN, the Associated Press,,, local news outlets, and other national news outlets. We even had a big mention in the Washington Post over the summer. Reggie came out and presented teh first of what will be many checks: this one for $50,000. He was so humble and so wonderful. We all took a huge group photo with him, and the NFL channel used the positioning as stock footage in a story about him over this past weekend, when the Saints played their first pre-season game.

I hate football. I usually hate pro-athletes. But all of a sudden...I'm a pretty big fan of Saint number 25...

Stay tuned to the month of May...

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