In 2006, I started tutoring the Moorhead sisters twice a week at their charter school on Napoleon Avenue. It was one of the first schools to open after Hurricane Katrina with 319 students enrolled. The Moorhead sisters got to school by city bus. They had evacuated Katrina late – in a rainstorm – and saw the car in front of theirs drive over the spillway. Everyone in it died. Their family had lost their home and they’d relocated to a double on Elysian Fields. Their mom was an RN at Touro Infirmary, but she’d decided to open her own catering business.
The sisters were both in the 7th grade because LaDell had repeated. She was quiet and serious, with a smile that tripped me up, it was that startling. Brianna was mischievous, outgoing. We were writing a sentence with the vocab word derision – (mocking, jeering, teasing, taunting) – and, giggling, she told me how the kids made fun of her last name. “Head is a boy’s . . . private, and more is more of,” she pointed to there, “there.”
I worked with them separately, either shadowing them in class, or taking them down the hall to the Resource Center. Tulane University’s work-study students passed us with their own reading buddies. Before the storm, New Orleans 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 public school students were behind. When I first started with the sisters, 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’d been practicing those, too, catching them up to where they needed to be.
Their class was reading The Skeleton Key, a story about three Frenchmen who worked 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 I offered her some.
“I’ll wait for the cafeteria,” she said. We’d been sharing a box of orange Tic Tacs. Her sister Brianna only liked white Tic Tacs.
Basque, hordes, phosphorescent, maritime. These were the vocab words.
“My cousin caught a rat in our backyard,” LaDell told me. She was prone to stopping in the middle of the sentence she was reading when the text reminded her of something else. “He put him on a shovel and chased me.”
“How’d he keep a rat on a shovel?” I said.
I didn’t correct their grammar. When we’d read a Langston Hughes story about a woman who fixes a meal for the boy who tried to snatch her handbag, they stumbled over the slang. “That’s wrong,” they said. “I know,” I said, “but it’s how these characters speak. Verisimilitude. The appearance of being true or real.”
This creepy adventure story was making me uncomfortable with its allusions to The Flying Dutchman, a man v. nature folktale that, after Katrina, seemed overly romantic. And then I remembered that as a young girl I loved stories that had nothing to do with me, because irrelevance got reality off my back, let me roam away from myself.
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 rats in the book 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 Tic Tacs and LaDell picked one off my palm. I said, “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 week before, they’d told me how 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. I took the white Tic Tacs out of my purse, and she popped a few in her mouth.
“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 wanted to be a nurse, like her mom. LaDell wanted to be a singer, like Beyonce. They were both trying out for the school’s dance team.
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, because the correct answers weren’t automatic to me. Brianna 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.
An uncle of the Moorhead sisters had been murdered over the weekend in a card game in Gert Town. They wanted to talk about him. That morning I’d read about the shooting in the Times-Picayune. He’d been shot twice in the chest by the man sitting across the table.
“Were you close to him?” I asked.
They shrugged their shoulders, nodded their heads, yes, like they were supposed to be.
“Our grandma’s upset. He her third son.”
“The police got the guy?”
“Took him to jail.”
They were distracted by dance team tryouts after school. I’d never seen the sisters outside of school, they were always in uniforms, but it was a dress down day and they had on skinny jeans and T-shirts, shrunken jean jackets, glittery purses.
“You guys look great,” I said.
LaDell had worked out steps for them both. They took me in the hall to show me their routine, singing Beyonce under their breath. To the left, to the left.
“You know who the warning in that song’s for,” I said.
They giggled and look embarrassed. “You know?”
“Sure. I have a teenage son, and he listens to Jay-Z. I know things. Someone maybe cheated on someone with someone’s back up singer. To the left, to the left,” I sang.
“He love her,” LaDell said.
“Her daddy hate him.” Brianna said. “How old is your son?”
“Oooooo,” they said.
I showed them a picture in my wallet of my Andrew in his Jesuit soccer uniform, his foot resting on the ball.
“He old,” LaDell said, taking the picture to hold it closer. They’d both lost their eyeglasses in Katrina, and their mom hadn’t taken them for new ones.
“Mama says we need to fix the computer at home first,” Brianna explained.
“How’s your mom’s catering business?” I asked, and LaDell raved about her potato salad, her gumbo, her fried chicken; we talked a lot about food while we read.
The next time I saw them they told me they hadn’t made the dance team, but cheerleader tryouts were coming up.
Over four months they had moved seven times and lived in three states so they didn’t wear out their welcome with the relatives who took them in after Katrina. LaDell and Brianna’s father lived in California and he’d asked them to come live with him, but their mom said no.
Brianna told me she wanted to have her name changed from her mother’s to his.
“You won’t be a Moorhead anymore.” I said. “No more derision.”
“I’ll be a Williams,” she said.