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Week of 11.24.06

Producer's Notebook: NOW's Brian Epstein from New Orleans

NOW producer Brian Epstein
NOW producer Brian Epstein
Three months ago I was assigned a story to follow students, teachers, and administrators returning back into the New Orleans public school system for the first time since the storm.

Over that period I became acquainted with the quiet streets of the French Quarter, the sound of live jazz or zydeco blaring from local bars, and barbequed oysters. Most of my time, however, was spent in a beautiful, old school building on South Carrolton Avenue where I had the opportunity to document a community struggling to open a school against daunting odds. Lafayette Academy, a brand new charter school, is part of an attempt to reinvigorate a faltering school system that was further ravaged by Katrina. With few books, little curriculum in place, and toilets that didn't work, Lafayette opened its doors to over 700 students.

The privilege of journalism is being invited into homes or places of work that would normally be closed to outsiders. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the degree to which the Lafayette Academy community opened their arms to me. Whether it was walking through the halls of school with the principal, standing in the destroyed house of a social studies teacher, or sitting on the stoop with a seventh grader, these New Orleanians shared their lives.

Over my next two trips back down to Lafayette I found that the boundary between journalist and subject, a line that as a professional I try not to cross, was fading fast. In class I heard myself telling students to pay attention to the teacher; in hallways I scolded kids for running. At one point, a teacher came up to me and said, "It's so weird you're leaving, you're like part of the staff now."

At one point, a teacher came up to me and said, "It's so weird you're leaving, you're like part of the staff now."
An administrator asked me to cover lunch room duty one afternoon. I declined, falsely claiming that I had to conduct an interview. Maybe it has to do with my own memories of being an awkward, uncomfortable middle school student, but I was drawn to these kids. And when the camera was off, there were moments when I simply could not extricate myself from the course of their lives.

Early one afternoon in October I was walking up to the third floor of the school when I noticed a child standing alone, against the wall, in the stairwell. As I approached him, I recognized the skinny, slouched-over figure as a 6th grader named Demetrius, whose class I'd filmed before. Demetrius was a "trouble-maker" whose name was always on the detention list.

"Maybe it has to do with my own memories of being an awkward, uncomfortable middle school student, but I was drawn to these kids."
But today this tough kid was diminished to a boy with tears running down his cheeks. Through sobs, he struggled to tell me that he had gotten in trouble in class and that his teacher no longer wanted him around. He told me that he was going to leave school for good. I coaxed him down the hall to the main office, where I had to softly push him through the door. I stood there watching Demetrius shuffle side to side, waiting for someone to notice him. After a few moments, he walked out of the office, still unnoticed by the secretaries, and made a dash for the front door of the school. I jumped in front of him. "You don't really want to leave school, do you?" I asked. Moments later the chief administrator of the school walked up, took Demetrius by the shoulder, and walked him into his office. Later that day Demetrius was back in class.

I don't presume to have saved Demetrius from a lost education. I was there for just one of many vulnerable moments. But thinking about Demetrius reminds me of how precarious a child's life can be and how we, as a nation, have a responsibility to make sure that Demetrius' formative years in school in New Orleans give him as many chances for success as possible.