Hudson was determined to break down students who defied authority. He got on the intercom to remind them that Reed was a school, “not a mall.” He told one sixteen-year-old who had threatened a teacher, “No teacher in this building is going to punk out for any student here. I am not going to punk out for any student here. I have too many kids like you who think they can say and do anything they want.” He tried telling the same sixteen-year-old about his own upbringing as one of eight children of a single mother who swept floors for doctors and lawyers, how he had been pulled up by football. But it seemed to make no impression on the young man. I couldn’t tell whether it was because the student was already too far gone, or because Hudson was so busy talking, and yelling, that he had forgotten how to listen.
Students watched Hudson and shook their heads, as if sure he would run aground on his own determination. “He tries, but it ain’t really working, what he’s trying to do,” said a student named Laura Hurst, who was sitting glumly in the cafeteria, boycotting lunch, like most of her classmates, because the food was frozen. “They’re still going to do what they want to do.”
As Hudson himself knew well, the time he spent in the halls, the endless meetings with parents, meant he knew little of what was happening in the classroom. What was clear, in the time I spent in classes, was how little of the training Jarvis had mandated for teachers seemed to have taken. In algebra, I watched students spend the whole class copying problems out of the textbook, as if graphic endeavor alone could transmit mathematical understanding. In another math class, a first-year teacher, straight out of college, ignored a girl standing and braiding a boy’s hair. In “Freshman Orientation,” a new course that had been created with no curriculum, the teacher had received no training at all, since she’d had only about eight hours’ notice that she had a job. She was a legal secretary whose only real teaching experience had come years before when she received her certification. Her ninth-graders mocked, disobeyed, and mostly just disregarded her.
Walking Reed’s halls with Jackson, the suspension officer, I had heard him say of two different students that they weren’t going to “make it.” Some kids, he explained when I asked about this, were “doomed.” “They don’t have right in them,” he said. Jackson said he always offered second chances. But if students didn’t take them, he believed in just waiting for them to mess up enough times to get themselves expelled—and out of the way of the kids who wanted to learn.
I admired Jackson’s efforts to shield those students who did want to learn, who tried to avoid the chaos by sitting at the front of their classes or walking away from fights. But as for the other students, I wasn’t so sure about predestination as an educational philosophy. Had God truly happened to concentrate so many bad seeds in poor, black New Orleans—or had there been a moment, earlier in their lives, when the right school could have provided salvation?
"EVERYBODY WAS SO HAPPY TO SEE ME"
"Peace” had been the first unit, for every grade, at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in the Lower Ninth Ward, initiating new students into the school culture, and reinforcing it for older ones. That culture was one of respect and civic comportment. To create it, the school taught anger management and conflict resolution—key skills for children from families and neighborhoods where volatility was often the norm.