Hillary Cooper, Anna’s Arts Program
It’s a pretty entertaining picture—five white, female college students driving a bright red Prius from uptown New Orleans into the Lower Ninth Ward, past abandoned homes, past the same homeless men sitting on benches, past numerous liquor stores, but not a single decent grocery store. I like to think of myself as a broad-minded person, but I can honestly admit that I am uncomfortable standing out so blatantly from my surroundings. I tell myself, just as I do every day, that it’s not about my comfort. Still, I am relieved when we arrive at All Soul’s Episcopal Church, where the academic portion of the camp takes place.
Walking through the doors at 7:45, I see that many of my students are already here to greet me. I receive a lot of hugs but hurry back to my classroom to quickly prepare for the day. However, today I can tell that things are not going according to plan, as the education director, Laura, beckons me over to talk with her and one of the other interns, Mary. Due to some unforeseen health complications, Laura wants Mary to go home, meaning the 7-year-olds are now without a teacher. I know what’s coming next—can I lump the 7s in with my class, the 8s? And I know that this is not really a question, because there’s nowhere else for them to go. At Anna’s Arts, circumstances are far from ideal—many of the classrooms are simply dividers set up in the sanctuary, supplies go mysteriously missing each day, and we are understaffed. We certainly don’t have the luxury of finding another teacher.
So my class is doubled in size today, and no one is happy about it. My class complains about being lumped in with the “babies,” and the more introverted 7s are clearly intimidated by my rambunctious class. Today’s assignment is to learn how to compromise on a menu for a party that both classes are going to plan for the whole camp. Mary and I had already talked about how hard this would be with both of us there, so without her, it is a challenge to manage all the personalities. When the two classes finally line up to go to the bus for lunch, I breathe a sigh of relief—it’s a victory just that no one threw a tantrum. At lunch, which doubles as our daily teacher-meeting, we take a few minutes to share our frustrations and triumphs, listening to advice from the more experienced teachers.
After lunch, we meet the kids at Audubon Park to lead the environmental curriculum. I’m conflicted about how I feel about this part of the day. The park itself is beautiful and the neighborhood is ideal, so I’m glad the children can experience it. But the heat is so oppressive that I wonder if they are really able to learn. Today we are going on a leaf scavenger hunt with the 5-8 year olds, which is surprisingly successful at keeping them entertained. Naturally, it eventually turns into a game of who can find the grossest bug, but at least they’re engaged enough to actually observe nature! Around 2:45, we line the kids up to get on the bus again, this time heading to the Loyola recreation center. This may be my favorite part of the day—finally the kids can release some of their pent up energy, and since we’re back in the air conditioning, I find it so much easier to enjoy playing with them. We spend most of our time making up games with the little ones and refereeing while the older ones play basketball—usually resulting in a few tears and lessons in sharing the ball, which never seem to stick. At 4 p.m., we line up the kids to get on the bus home and walk them across the street. At this point in the day that I realize that any previous plans I may have been considering to experience New Orleans culture will inevitably turn into a date with some fro-yo and my Netflix account.
Although I’m basically ready to collapse, it’s still difficult seeing them smiling and waving to me from the bus, knowing what many of them are going home to. Everyone prepared us during training week for frustrations: “As far as behavior is concerned, these are the most difficult children you have ever worked with.” True. However, they didn’t prepare me for how loved I would feel. It amazes me that as firm as I am with my kids, I am still receiving a multitude of hugs as they get on the bus, and at least four kids have asked me, “Ms. Hillary, are you getting on the bus with me?” Even more amazing, a part of me wants to…as if my presence on the bus could protect them from what they encounter when they get off. Instead, I head back uptown with the rest of the teachers, ready to debrief and recharge for tomorrow.
Rather than working with difficult kids, then, the most discouraging part of staffing Anna’s Arts has been dealing with the inadequacy of the program itself. Unlike some other well-known summer enrichment programs, such as Harlem’s Children’s Zone, the program lacks basic organization in the most fundamental areas, which we have realized working in the office for two of the eight weeks this summer. The biggest problem remains that there is no consistent funding source, as many of the program’s efforts to obtain it were stymied. One potential source implied that helping the poor, primarily black, children of New Orleans, “wasn’t really their thing.” Facing that kind of undermining apathy, is it any wonder that the program struggles?
Despite these obstacles, there is a lot that Anna’s Arts gets right. Everyone who works with these kids is fully committed to them—you have to be, because they’re the only reason to keep coming back. The other interns, coming from several different colleges, are a hard-working group of intelligent women. The supervisors, each with their own strengths, provide insight to those of us less experienced. Organizational and funding problems are increasingly being brought to light and dealt with, and the mission remains clear: empowering the vulnerable, not just with literature circles and violin lessons, but with the knowledge that someone believes they are capable of more than what has been expected from them.
When I told people what I was doing with my summer, many responded with some dismissive comment: “Oh, just working with kids all summer?” Since I plan to teach after graduation, I’m pretty familiar with this attitude. It mystifies me as to how working with children inspires even my own friends to say things like, “you’re smarter than this job” or, even better, “don’t you feel like that’s wasting your potential?” But what does it say about my so called potential if this is the most challenging job that I’ve ever had, demanding far more of me than a semester at Washington and Lee? I’m not better than this job, and I’m not better than these kids. We’ve both grown, but I’m pretty sure I know who learned the most at summer camp this year.