Over Easy: Public Schools in New Orleans 1958-1959
Letty Owings, age 89 and the author of this post, recalls moving to New Orleans and teaching in a public elementary school in 1958.
New Orleans, 1958
Cultural experiences abound in this land of ours, but none can surpass living in New Orleans for just one year. The mockingbirds singing in the magnolias were left behind in Atlanta, along with red dirt and Stone Mountain. Ray went ahead of the six of us to begin his year of duty in the New Orleans Public Health Service Hospital. He got established and rented a house before the kids and I loaded the car and followed to what we found to be a strange locale.
As we drew up the drive to the hospital, moisture dripped from the huge vine-covered trees. A big crab inched his way across the street. Ray was sweating bullets because his “room” had no air conditioning to tame the heat and humidity. I remember his coming to the car and saying, “I don’t think you should have come here.”
Our rented house proved to be nicer than we expected. It did have its moments, however. An alligator came to the carport to lounge around, and the neighbors whose house practically touched ours fought half the night. That could be entertaining in the days before TV if they had only known when to shut it off. Our house, built on a concrete slab, sweated the floors sopping wet at night. Walking around could be precarious. Clothes that touched the floor or shoes left in the closet turned green with mold.
The quarreling neighbors told me to stay out of the yard during the day for fear of heat stroke. I blew off that advice since a veteran of the Midwest dust bowl could not possibly have a heat stroke. I did not have the stroke, but I did get mighty sick when I gardened in midday—only once. That once was all it took to pay attention to the natives. I never made my peace with the heat and humidity, but we did build immunity to mosquitoes.
School in Jefferson Parish where we lived came as an impressive challenge. One day right before enrollment time, the neighbor lady—not the battling one—asked me where the kids were going to school. Considering that a question with an obvious answer, I told her they would go wherever the local school was located. She was quick to inform me that nobody that was anybody sent kids to public school, and, in fact, it was unthinkable. Without either money for private school, which meant Catholic in New Orleans, or a desire to try to change plans in a strange location, we forged ahead with public education. Our oldest was ready for high school. When enrollment day came, we found the high school, if it could be dignified by that name.
The school building, completely buried in a summer’s growth of tall weeds, appeared as though it had been a long time condemned and given over to hopelessness and rot. The principal, a hefty Italian sweating profusely and flailing his arms around, trying to impose order on the chaos, hardly seemed to notice our inquiry about enrolling a student. In fact, students appeared to be the least of his worries. The attendees chiefly consisted of those who had been disciplinary cases thrown out of Catholic school or sons and daughters of the dock and levy crews. The kids that slept on the levy were called “levy kids.”
Two of our kids served their time at John Clancy elementary school. We never learned about the John Clancy behind the name. Perhaps he was a crooked politician. That would make sense in an area where the biggest bridges were named after Huey Long, the infamous former Governor who was shot dead on the capitol steps. His brother Earl Long served as Governor in 1958, although his mind had long since left him. Sanity was not a requirement to be Governor of Louisiana.
John Clancy, newer and even more crowded than Kenner High, had a principal who had not even the benefit of a secretary or a counselor. He was the staff. Always hurried, harried, nervous and angry, his was an impossible situation. In fact, all of education in the state of Louisiana was impossible. With one of the highest tax bases in the country paired with the lowest teachers’ salaries, the diversion of funds to pockets of politicians assured a hopeless public education system.
Cooks held the most important jobs in the school system as far as the students were concerned. Many of the kids depended on the free school lunches for their daily bread. The principal stood like a prison guard at the lunchroom door, right by the tray return. His rule of “you take it, you eat it” went unchallenged. The cooks put their pride and their energies into making great meals for the hungry hordes. Biscuits hot from the oven and plenty of red beans and rice made for hearty, nourishing meals. If they deviated from the menu, the kids looked askance at the food. School fare was the same as what the kids ate at home, if they came from a home stable enough to have meals. The lucky ones might add to their fare some crawdads caught in the ubiquitous drainage ditches.
Classes at Clancy averaged around 50 students of varying ages. Since social promotion as a concept had not yet caught hold in Louisiana, students could fail as often as teachers cared to fail them. Some big guys roared up to grade school on their motorcycles. Some others were rounded up and dragged in by the local cops since truancy was petty crime. “Special education” classes for those who could not or would not learn were not an option in schools where most students would have qualified for special education. Teachers tried to survive, one day at a time.
So desperate was the need for teachers that I finally agreed to take a sixth grade part of the year. We could use the money, meager as it was. The $278/month was an improvement due to the recent reorganization of teachers’ unions. A Catholic Brother from one of the orders taught a sixth grade with 55 students. Not all the chairs fit in the room. Teachers and a few students, in that room and a number of others, were relegated to filling the hall next to the room. One day the Brother decided he was out of there while he was still functional. As unstrung as he was, he probably went out and crawled in a hole. I took the class for a number of weeks that ran into months. It was rather horrible, although I found the “kids” of all ages responded to kindness and consideration—attributes they seldom encountered. I liked them and they cared for me. They would beg me to read to them since many of them had never had the privilege of owning a book of their own or actually learning to read. Books suffered the same shortage as all other supplies.
Ray’s work at the State Street Marine Hospital had him catching babies and treating families of the shrimp boat captains. Since their health care was free, they brought gifts to the doctors on occasion. And what would a shrimp boat captain bring but shrimp—huge shrimp, a generous and unusual gift. We never went down to see the fleet blessed when the boats set out, but I believe that continues to be a custom.
Then, the floods came.
…to be continued, with a recollection of the flood, and of Mardi Gras…
Old Kenner High School by Z28scrambler via Wikimedia Commons