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They'll know what it means to miss New Orleans

Meredith, Cece and Justin Harris 300 px;s 2008
Provided by the Harris family | St. Louis Beacon archive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Harris family has decided to move.

Justin and Meredith Harris and baby Cecilia are leaving New Orleans. They will soon put their dog into a rented truck with all their possessions and move from their traditional home in Uptown to a ranch house in Glendale in St. Louis County.

The Harrises are young teachers at Newman School in walking distance of their home. Meredith teaches 4th grade and sometimes coaches girls’ soccer. Justin teaches 3rd grade and coaches baseball for the high school, assisting under legendary “Billy Fitz” Fitzgerald, subject of the book, Coach, whose teams are national powerhouses.

Newman is one of the premier schools in the city and state, the alma mater of a long line of students and athletes of renown. All the famous Manning brothers are alumni, and Newman feeds to schools like Penn, Annapolis, Sewanee and Stanford. Justin already has a teaching award from the school, and both he and Meredith have coached for its state champion teams. They might well become fixtures at Newman, if they stayed.

But they’re in the post-Katrina city with an 18-month-old daughter. They give varying reasons for leaving. “I miss the snow,” says Meredith, but keeps thinking: “I miss my family. It’s never felt like home. We can’t afford to have children here.”

Justin is more hesitant. “I’m kinda sad. I like telling people I’m from New Orleans. It’s the first big city I’ve lived in.”

Justin is from small-town Indiana. Meredith grew up in St. Louis County. They met at Indiana University, graduated in 2002 and married. They considered teaching in Arizona, Colorado or New Orleans. Then Meredith’s grandmother died and her New Orleans home stood empty. Offered temporary use of the charming house, in her mother’s family for four generations, Meredith and Justin made the Big Easy decision.

Heading Up River

Six years later, they look forward to teaching in St. Louis. Meredith says, “I miss being close to family and friends. And our own home — we can paint however we want. Here, we can’t really change it.” Justin says he can drive to Indiana to visit family. And go to Cardinals games. They named Rolen, their friendly Labrador, for Scott Rolen, Justin’s favorite Cardinal at the time.

Change happens. The “puppy” sometimes has hip trouble now. What does Justin foresee? “Just something new. Snow days instead of hurricane days.”

Hurricane days. That’s right. School cancellations in New Orleans can total up to weeks. What happens can be unpredictable. “For one alert, we boarded up the windows. Our friends brought an ax so we could cut our way out. They brought their dogs. And it rained 1/10 of an inch.” So they didn’t always wait in fear. In the Big Easy, people have hurricane parties.

Meredith says, “When Katrina was about to hit, we were still going swimming at the lake! But there was a mob at the gas station. I took two bottles of water to the counter, and the woman said, ‘Girl, that ain’t enough for the storm.’ We were driving out of town an hour later.”

That was Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina arrived. “We came back Sept. 30, when the whole city was being run by the National Guard. Not a car on the street. We saw armed guards, even Israeli commandos.”

“They all kept saying it wouldn’t be the storm, it’d be the flooding,” Justin says. Meredith adds, “Now you don’t hear people complaining so much all the time.”

After Katrina 

Teaching in the aftermath could be tragic and magical. Families disappeared, dozens of teachers lost their jobs, whole schools combined. Justin and Meredith taught 3rd grade together in what was called Interim School or sometimes “TriPaulNewman,” with students from three schools: Trinity, St. Paul and Newman.

“We were told, ‘Just make the kids feel safe.’ ”

They took Rolen to school with them every day and named their “Lab Class” after him. Students told their stories: We have nine feet of water; my grandma died; I have 19 people in my house.

The principals would come in after school and sit with teachers, sometimes bringing wine and food. Strange times.

The new headmaster’s first week on the job was when Katrina hit. He was from Philadelphia. He didn’t return the following year.

The Harrises will miss New Orleans. Meredith says, “There’s a special scent about New Orleans, something that grows here and every once in awhile you can catch a whiff. And then I remember being 8 years old here, and it just makes my heart glad.”

Justin, with more recent memories, says, “There’s always a festival, something to do around here. There’s so much activity. All kinds of people.”

Meredith says, “Yes, the parties, Mardi Gras, JazzFest, there’s just nothing like it. The food and the Cajun music.”

Time to Leave 

But the Harrises aren’t likely to be setting up beer coolers in the street for any parties. They are somewhat seasoned now, and they are parents. Their daughter was born November 2006, a year after Katrina. Aside from work, most of their energy goes to Cece, who can stop misbehaving on a three-count, helps feed Rolen and has nearly mastered “Hap-py. Mah-mah. Day” for phone calls to both grandmothers.

Meanwhile, the news is clear. The coastland is disappearing foot by foot, the city and the levees themselves are sinking inch by inch, and another hurricane season comes every year.

“It doesn’t feel safe now,” Meredith says, almost apologetically.

So the Harris family is coming to St. Louis.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Nick Otten, who has taught in St. Louis area schools for many years, is a regular contributor to the St. Louis Beacon. 

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