What's the Name of Your School?
Hannah Allen, MPH | BY-LA Program Coordinator
I think the first time I stepped into a New Orleans high school classroom my heart was beating so fast that a humming bird would be impressed. That school has a reputation for being amazing and has hosted our Believe in Youth – Louisiana (BY-LA) program for a few cycles now. I knew its name from coworkers and my local friends. “I know you’re not walking into my high school,” a friend of mine said when I told her I was going to this particular school, “My old high school?! Baaa-by! Woooo…I don’t know if you can handle it! My school was fun.” She was referring to the life oozing from the walls, the immense loyalty in a population that has seen its share of hardships and a continuation of a cultural narrative existing for over 100 years. This is a school that grew out of adversity and has become an institution whose legacy continues to cater to the people of New Orleans after surviving Katrina. Their name is known as prestigious and elite. Though it may be different now compared to the time before Katrina, the loyalty to their alma mater still resounds throughout the halls. I knew this was the start to me becoming a part of something that people in New Orleans cherish; the high school experience. I can’t hope to contribute to changing societal norms in reproductive health without taking each individual high school’s personality into consideration. My first day went fine and truth be told, learning about my students and their stories has become one of my favorite parts of my job as a health educator.
I’m a health educator that takes a trauma-informed approach to teaching sexual health, healthy coping mechanisms and how to make proud choices. Sex education is a topic that is inherently triggering to many people, and it is a lifelong process. I just hope that I can be a part of the lesson, even if it is for only a short period of time. I talk about topics that can make adults feel awkward and snicker like children. When I meet my children, I remember this and try to be more patient with them. I walk into each school as a stranger with the hope to teach my students with a trauma-informed ear, trying to truly hear them. Some schools smile so big and dance so joyfully that you might miss the whispers of hardship. I had to bend down low to the ground, cleaning out my ears from my own preconceptions, using extra ear swabs to truly hear what they had to say. Prior to teaching them, I may have only seen them marching fiercely in Mardi Gras parades or as happy children walking around during a festival. I would have never known what trauma these youth have witnessed unless I put my ear to the ground and cleaned out my ears.
They make me smile, always cracking jokes. Some schools have a loud personality, so loud that I hear all of their stories from five miles away without having to do much. They speak of their experiences casually, show their scars openly and have no problem with speaking their truths. Other schools lead with a traditional foot first and take time to move past the awkwardness that can inherently exist when it comes to learning about sexual health. I have to listen to them differently and do my best to be non-reactive to the differing stories that often require a gentle response. To truly reach them, I have to understand where they are coming from.
Not being from here, I marvel at the strength of community, tradition, and boundless love that is New Orleans’ culture. I’ve been finding more and more that the high school culture is not exempt from this. As far as I’ve seen, there is a sense of vigor that is ever present as each school presents this differently. This spirit and love for school continues on even after people graduate. I see friends rep their schools in social situations to gain respect, some name dropping their high school to show where they come from, and others continuing the love that is their high school alma mater by repping their school colors and high school jackets even into old age. Each school has a character that is imprinted onto its students, allowing the students to be socialized into a history whether long-running or new, and I am honored to try to be a part of it.