I’m tutoring the Moorhead sisters twice a week at a charter school that opened five months after the levee breaches flooded 200,000 homes in New Orleans. There are 319 kids in the school, and the Moorhead sisters get there by city bus. The apartment they relocated to is on Elysian Fields. Their mom was an RN at Touro Infirmary, but she’s recently decided to open her own catering business. The sisters are both in the 7th grade because LaDell repeated. She’s quiet, serious, with a smile that trips up my breathing, it’s that lovely and deserving of more time. Brianna’s wiley, outgoing; she giggles if I ask her to explain what a skeleton is, or when she’s telling me how the kids – because we’re writing a sentence with the vocab word derisive – at first made fun of her last name. “Head is a boy’s . . . private, and more is more of,” she points there, “there.”
I work with them separately, either shadowing them in class, or taking them down the hall to the Resource Center. Tulane work-study students pass us with their reading buddies. Before the storm, New Orelans had the lowest test scores in the country, and $12,000,000 had been stolen from the school board’s coffers by workers faking pensions, or cutting checks for dead relatives. 80% of the kids are behind. When I first started with them, Brianna was reading close to grade, but LaDell tested at 3.4, a third grade level. Neither of the sisters knew the multiplication tables, so we’ve been triaging the remedial work, which is quickly becoming their regular grade work. They don’t need real time to catch up.
A few months ago, their class was reading The Skeleton Key, a story about three Frenchmen who work in a lighthouse off the coast of Spain. A derelict ship crashes into the rocks of the key, and ravening rats swarm the island and drive the men inside an airless tower. “Ravening comes from ravenous which means starving,” I explained to LaDell. “Like I am.” I unwrapped the Pop Tart in my purse because I’d left the house without breakfast, and offered her some. “I’ll wait for the cafeteria,” she said. We’d been sharing a box of orange tic tacs tic tacs. Brianna only likes white tic tacs . . . Basque, hordes, phosphorescent, maritime. These were the vocab words.
“My cousin caught a rat in our backyard,” LaDell told me. She’s prone to stopping in the middle of a sentence she’s reading when the text reminds her of something. “He put him on a shovel and chased me.”
“How’d he keep him on the shovel?” I said.
I don’t correct their grammar. When we read a Langston Hughes story earlier about a woman who fixes a meal for the boy who tried to snatch her handbag, they stumbled over the black dialogue. “That’s wrong,” they said. “I know,” I said, “but it’s how these characters speak.” Verisimilitude. A word I barely know myself.
This creepy adventure story was making me uncomfortable with its allusions to The Flying Dutchman, a man v. nature folktale that seemed the opposite of apt. The library had books about the underground railroad, Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington. I’d forgotten that as a girl I liked characters who had nothing to do with me, because irrelevance got reality off my back, and gave me more places to roam. Maybe the Moorhead sisters didn’t need to be reminded again that they were once slaves.
LaDell read about the sailors’ bodies, eaten clean by hordes of rats. “Rats look for water,” she said. “I saw them in our street after it rained. The house beside us never got cleaned out since Katrina. The furniture’s in it.”
“These are maritime rats,” I said. “Not city rats.”
“They’ll come in our apartment,” she asked.
“No, no,” I said. “They don’t like the noise your family makes.” I shook out orange TicTacs and she picked one off my palm. “That man should clean out his house, don’t you think?”
“He sick,” LaDell said. “My aunt might take some things from there. The man said she could. My grandmother thinkin’ about movin’ in.”
The Moorhead sisters evacuated Katrina late – in a rainstorm – and saw the car in front of theirs drive over the spillway. Everyone in it died. A week earlier, a woman had been shot and died on the corner beneath their window. It was their mom who called 911.
I walked LaDell back to class and picked up her sister. Brianna arranged her papers on the table and asked to borrow my purple pen. “Choo!” she sneezed, and a half-dissolved tic tac flew onto the page. She giggled. “I can’t eat that!”
“Sure you can. Paper’s clean.”
Back it went in her mouth. Brianna wants to be a nurse, like her mom. LaDell wants to be a singer, like Beyonce. They tried out for the school’s dance team and got cut, but last week they found out they’d made the cheerleading squad.
Photos of real rats were scattered through The Skeleton Key. Brianna squirmed in her chair. “Their eyes aren’t red like that,” she said. She’d finished the story, so we were reviewing a chapter on problem verbs – lay/lie, raise/rise, may/can, sat/set – and I had to keep flipping to the back for the correct answers. After thirty six-years, they’re still not clear to me. She corrected me on a couple of fill-ins that I guessed wrong, shook out white tic tacs, and lined up an hour’s worth in the crack of the book.