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.”
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