Thursday, October 04, 2007

Disbelief in Omaha, or No Frame of Reference

There's one important thing I think Louisianians need to grasp that many just have no clue about: They need to know that the dysfunction and, indeed, squalor that many never give a second thought is genuinely puzzling and horrifying to most Americans.

A CASE IN POINT is that the Third World conditions at Baton Rouge's "five star school of academic excellence" leave ordinary people in, say, Omaha, Neb., shaking their heads in disbelief that a community would subject its children to such a dilapidated pit. Ordinary urban folk out here on the edge of the Great Plains have no frame of reference for what I found when I recently went back home . . . to Baton Rouge Magnet High School.

And likewise, I fear ordinary Louisianians have no frame of reference for what a functioning education system looks like. What putting your kids first -- at least as a community -- looks like.

This was brought home big-time when my wife told me about the conversation she had with the film-processing guy when she went to pick up the rolls of black-and-white pictures I shot last week at BRMHS.

AS MRS. FAVOG TELLS IT, the fellow's first question was "Do kids still go to school here?"

Yes, she replied.

"Is it in New Orleans?"

No, she said. She asked how he knew the photos were from Louisiana. He said he saw the state seal on the floor in a photograph.

Mrs. Favog told him it was a school in Baton Rouge, La.

"Was it damaged in the hurricane?" he asked. "I took one look at this and figured it was a photo from the hurricane."

No, that's just the school board's neglect of a school over 30 years, she explained, adding that the history behind BRMHS was similar to some schools here in Omaha. In other words, a magnet school created during desegregation.

Mrs. Favog told him Baton Rouge High was my lifeline -- that it was a magnificent old school when I went there, was on the historic register and that it was the first place I learned there were possibilities out there beyond a working-class life. She then explained that now, many alumni were fighting to get it renovated while the school board seemed to want to tear it down.

"Oh my," he said. "I looked at the photos and thought, 'Oh, those poor kids in New Orleans, having to attend this school after it was damaged in a hurricane.' "

He was sympathetic, and wished the BRMHS alumni and students good luck with our efforts. My wife reports the gentleman seemed genuinely stunned that anybody would be expected to attend school in such a building.

WHAT DO YOU SAY when it's your old school that shocks unsuspecting Midwesterners so? I can't speak for Baton Rougeans, but as an Omahan born, raised and educated in Louisiana's capital city, I'm deeply ashamed.

We pretty much have known for decades that the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is incapable of shame . . . or of properly running a school system. And we pretty much have always known that there's something in the Gret Stet's drinking water that renders the population incapable of competent self-government.

But are average folks back home capable of shame anymore? Is anyone deeply, soul-shatteringly, unable-to-show-your-face ashamed that this is the best America's Next Great City (TM) has to offer its "best and brightest" teens?

IS THERE NO VOTER who's hang-your-head ashamed of hiring the incompetents who run the schools that educate their children but can't be bothered to keep them from crumbling like a Western ghost town? And whose solution to their own managerial indifference is to tear down the evidence of their crimes against Louisiana students, replacing the blight by throwing up something new that will be in the same sad shape in a generation or so?

Have they, at long last, no shame? Is their blindness, instead, merely a refusal to see?

Magnificent schools like Baton Rouge High -- great despite what and who birthed them and wonderful despite the ruins that house them -- gave many of us children of Louisiana the eyes to see the dysfunction standing plainly before us.

And we were sooooo out of there when we got the chance.

I OFTEN WONDER whether I ought to have stayed and fought. I wonder, too, whether it would have made a damned bit of difference.

Laissez les bon temps rouler, cher! But don't be surprised if, someday soon, you're rouler-ing all by your lonesome.

UPDATE: Don't forget to read the previous two installments of this Baton Rouge High trilogy of posts and pictures here and here. Heck, for that matter, just go to the front page and peruse the whole blog.
You'll be glad you did (wink).


James H said...

Great series of post. It is just stunning. I am going to link them on my blog tomorrow

Anonymous said...

As a student i know the state of BRMHS is a combination of many things. 1st of all they have once again pushed back restoration. But i know that this building will never fall anyway.

Anonymous said...

i m also a student at brmhs, i agree the condition of the school is terrible, you honestly get used to it, but we shouldnt have to. they finally have everything set for renovations but it involves us moving everything to another high school in the area which was shut down last year due to failing test scores, said school is in very poor condition also. the plans for the renovation, in my opinion, lack many necessary things, and the lay out is not very compatible with the way the school is run. you cant ever win with east baton rouge parish school system.