Jahquille Ross: I’m Glad To Be Back In New Orleans
A told to Kimberly Jacobs
My mother and sister died when I was 12 years old, so before Katrina I was living with my brother and sister-in-law who are 20 years older than me. My 8th grade year had just started, I was excited and getting ready for the jamboree, which is the kickoff of the football season. Then we got news about Hurricane Katrina coming.
It was disturbing and intense because we had never heeded a hurricane warning like this before. Most people in New Orleans have been through so many hurricanes they just decide to wait it out. but my brother and sister-in-law took caution. We went ahead to Alexandria, LA, where my sister-in-law is from and stayed with her parents for approximately three months.
Getting from New Orleans to the capital of Baton Rouge took about six hours and we ended up taking the river road off of the pacific river. There was so much traffic going through that road and the small towns; it was really unbearable being a kid my age.
All we had was a weekend bag. This storm isn’t going to be that bad, we’ll come back and everything else will be just fine, we thought. My nephew was in first or second grade and this was his first real hurricane evacuation. He brought some of the trophies he had won from little league and other games and activities with him when we left the city. In retrospect, that was smart.
The day after we left the storm hit. A few days later we began to see pictures of the place we once called home in the media and we knew at that point there was no chance of going back; it was surreal. During that time, everyone’s eyes were glued to CNN from sunup to sundown. So many people weren’t able to get out, which made us think, “Hey, we made it out. How fortunate and blessed we are.” But realizing all the devastation that occurred also said to us, “You’re not going back anytime soon.”
Once we realized that, I couldn’t just sit around the house anymore. It was maybe a week later before I was in school. My sister-in-law enrolled me in Brame, a prominent, well-known middle school in the Alexandria area. A couple other kids from back home ended up in the same school, but things were very different. For one, I was used to my classroom being predominately African American and it wasn’t anymore. There was also the stigma of being from New Orleans where the school system is known to be poor. My new teachers worked with me but there was already so much stuff they covered in the school year that I just didn’t know. I felt out of place from the other students who had already formed friendships and here I was as this new guy the media portrayed to them as a refugee. I didn’t really fit in, and at the same time I still didn’t know where my other friends were from New Orleans. I didn’t have any of their numbers, and I couldn’t call any family members because there wasn’t any cell phone signal anyway. It was a mind boggling time period. Of course I needed to go back to school, but there were so many other things on my mind.
Because I was placed in the gifted classes I was kind of isolated from everyone else from New Orleans. But at the end of the day when everyone at school had their elective classes, the counselor would gather us in his office to have round robin discussions where we’d talk about how we were feeling and how we could work together to help each other. I gained a new perspective of certain things because in New Orleans I was born and raised in Edgewood, the west bank of New Orleans, which is more of a suburban side so there wasn’t as much flooding and damaging. Some people did get flooding but it wasn’t to the extent of what you saw on television. It was mostly a lot of wind damage on this side of the river. I was lucky but some people weren’t, they didn’t have any clothes and necessities to be a successful student. Those individuals did require a little more one-on-one.
My family moved to Dallas where other family members had previously relocated and I attended a school called Haggard Middle School. We stayed in North Dallas which is predominantly white. That experience alone was very mind boggling and a complete culture shock. Most of the students at the school were Caucasian, there were probably more Latino students than African American, and once again I had an identity crisis: being the smart, well-rounded, African American male, the odds were kind of against me.
I liked the odds being against me because I like to show people although I may not have this, that, and the other I can still strive for excellence and reach my maximum potential. I used that to better myself, like I did with the kids in Alexandria. I can say students in Dallas were more receptive to being my friend and understanding what Katrina was, what it meant to me, and how my life was impacted.
After six months we moved back to New Orleans because we owned a family business before leaving. While I was staying in Dallas, my brother went back and forth to New Orleans trying to recover the business and open it back up. By the time we moved back the business was up and running and my sister-in-law was able to get her job back. New Orleans got a little better from what it was, but there was still so much to be done. All the grocery stores were open, but extracurricular activities like going to the bowling alley, going to the movies, none of that was open yet. It was sort of a ghost town especially coming back during that period where they first opened the city in October.
There were no city lights and you couldn’t go out to eat, you had to make a meal at home. Even on my side of town, although it wasn’t as bad as other sides, it was still bad. I couldn’t go back to my school before Katrina, it became a charter school and no longer served seventh and eighth grade, it was a traditional high school of ninth-twelfth. So I attended Eisenhower Charter School. It was good because I was back at home, I knew some faces, and the teachers were caring. I met some really good friends and we wound up going to high school together; some of them I’m still friends with today. My principal before going to 7th grade was my principal again at that school. She was always a very caring lady, and she’s actually still a friend of the family to this day.
By the end of ninth grade year I made tons of friends and had good relationships with my teachers and my principal. I finished second in my class and ran for student council president. A ninth-grader running for school president was a big deal and I actually won. I served for three years. It was a great experience. I met Mayor Ray Nagin; former Secretary of Education Annie Duncan; former Senator Mary Landrieu; and former First Lady Laura Bush when she came. I worked on former Mayor Nagin’s youth initiative after Katrina dealing with high school students.
My sister-in-law and brother always taught me to make the most of opportunities. I participated in Dillard University’s upward bound program and got exposure to different colleges around the south. I also took college course before even attending a university. I went to summer programs at Grambling State University and earned six credit hours. One summer I went to Carlton College in Minnesota where they have a specific program that targets the African American population. There I formed my college entrance essays talking about the story of my mother and sister and not having a father and how my brother and sister-in-law guided me to be who I am today.
My sister-in-law is my role model. She taught elementary school and so did my brother, who was also a high school football coach. They taught me the ropes of education and how to really be passionate about what they do and it transferred over to me. Senior year I decided I wanted to go to school out of state. The deal with my brother and sister-in-law was if I wanted to go to school out of state it had to be totally free, they weren’t coming out of pocket.
The challenging thing for me was I was so involved in school and extracurricular activities, plus we owned a restaurant where I worked part time and I had Upward bound on Saturdays. Still I used minute outside of those hours to apply for scholarships. By the time I graduated I received a scholarship from Ronald McDonald House Charity here in New Orleans, 100 Black Men scholarship, a $20,000 Horatio Eldger scholarship foundation for students who faced adversity and overcome it in their lives, and I also received two alumni scholarships. I still needed more funds to attend my dream school, Howard University, so I also applied for the Bill Gates scholarship.
I remember the day I came home to find a letter from the Bill Gates Foundation like no other. The letter stated I’d made it as a semifinalist, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to go on. That’s when the realization set in: my golden opportunity to go to Howard University was a wrap. I didn’t have enough money for school to be totally free.
When I had to make my final decision on May 1, 2010, I decided on Tuskegee University (TU) because of its rich history. I still met my goal to go to school out of state, and my brother and sister-in-law bought me a car for graduation. Because I took in 21 hours between my junior and senior year of high school, I was considered a second semester freshman by the time I stepped foot on campus. I majored in elementary education because of my brother and sister-in-law who helped me.
I didn’t know anyone at TU, but I can truly say I enjoyed my experience. After college I did Teach For America and was placed in New Orleans. I work at a charter school three blocks from where I live and I enjoy what I do teaching 2nd graders.
I’m glad to be back in New Orleans and actually wanted to be back. It was different because I felt like I learned all these skills to help me become a successful teacher so why not come back home and be a part of the effort to rebuild education in New Orleans?
My first year teaching was really good. I exposed my students to TU and many parents tell me “my child is so excited they want to go to TU, thank you for all you’ve done for them.” I teach with different hats on so I can always have my student’s attention on me. I change the hats seasonally and the kids look forward to it. It ensures that everyone is on one accord, paying attention, and all eyes are on me.
I also founded a student council here because it’s what I knew in school. I’m working to get our first group of student council kids to visit DC next year during spring break.
I also enjoy being at home with my family, and hanging out with my cousins when I can. It just feels good to be back home. Especially working at a charter school because it’s giving parents options now. Children don’t have to go to school in their district anymore. It also feels good because some of the teachers there were actually my elementary school teachers. They’re really helpful, and my principal now was my high school math teacher for two years.
Before children weren’t getting the education to be successful in society but now were stepping the bar up. My second graders are writing three paragraph essays, the education system has taken a turn for the best. It’s where I’m needed.