Teaching Empowerment

Michael Tisserand's post-Katrina series has led to an inspiring and emotionally wrenching new book

I've always associated my friend Michael Tisserand with New Orleans. Therefore, it seems strange to be chatting with him in a coffee shop in Evanston, Ill.--the city Tisserand now calls home.

We're discussing his powerful new book, Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a School to Remember. The book's roots lie in a series Tisserand wrote for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the Tucson Weekly ran all 11 parts of "Submerged."

Tisserand reminds me how the series began.

"In 'Submerged,' the first words I wrote were: 'New Orleans is gone,'" Tisserand says. "I felt hopeless, incredibly powerless at that moment."

Before Katrina, Tisserand was the editor of Gambit Weekly, the alternative newsweekly in New Orleans. The story of how the Tisserand family coped in the aftermath of Katrina provided the backbone of "Submerged." However, for the book, Tisserand decided that the tale of the school that the Tisserands and other refugee parents started in New Iberia, La.--by recruiting Paul Reynaud, a popular New Orleans schoolteacher they knew--could best illustrate what it was like to be a Katrina refugee.

"It was a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and I think the title of the school--that the kids and teacher came up with together--encapsulated how we felt. (The school) was a place we could feel not just safe, but a place where we again felt the power to make decisions, to move forward."

In Sugarcane Academy, Tisserand succeeds in telling a powerful and moving story with the school at its center. He masterfully works in details about what was going on in his life and the lives of others he encountered--fellow parents, his children's friends, refugees in Lafayette's Cajundome, friends he encountered on trips back to New Orleans--but never strays too far from the tale of the quirky, unsanctioned school that started on Sept. 12, 2005, and ended a little more than three months later, just before Christmas.

He also succeeded in doing something else with the book: He's inspired people.

"I didn't mean to do this," Tisserand says. "I didn't set out to write a book that was inspirational, but that's what I keep hearing over and over again. 'Submerged' was written in real time, as things were happening, and situations were still unresolved. This book is looking back, and is a thank you, really, for Mr. Reynaud and all the people that made this school possible."

Tisserand says that watching teachers respond to the horrendous tragedy of Katrina and the subsequent government failures by "doing what they do: teaching" inspired him, so it's no wonder that a sense of inspiration permeates what is, at times, also an emotionally wrenching book. (At one point, Tisserand writes about a young refugee boy who would plead with anybody he met who was returning to New Orleans to, please, look for his left-behind cat--a cat with spots. This anecdote had me in tears.)

This combination--of inspiration and emotion--is needed on behalf of New Orleans. Tisserand--now a freelancer who returns to New Orleans regularly for various writing projects--says the city is still a shell of its former self.

"The city is facing a very perilous future right now, As of yet, there's no federal support for truly protecting the city from the next big storm. Katrina was a fast-moving Category 2 storm. ... Americans know that FEMA failed, but they don't understand that the Army Corps of Engineers, a branch of the U.S. military, failed (with the levees)."

Tisserand says that he, like many displaced New Orleanians, lives with a sense of rage over the fact that his city was devastated, not by a natural disaster, but by government incompetence and inaction.

This begs the question: Two years later, and now living in Illinois, does Tisserand still feel, as he stated at the beginning of "Submerged," that New Orleans is gone?

"No," he says. "As I knew it, it is gone, but I think what motivates me now is that New Orleans could be gone. It's still threatened."

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