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Graduating after a year on the road

Thursday, May 25, 6:40 p.m., Violet, Louisiana — Home.   

Some people think home is a physical place, a place where belongings can be dumped and stored, kept under lock and the protection of a key. Brown carpet beneath bare feet, toes digging, reaching for the earth far below. A sofa, a television, a bed with fresh, crisp sheets. Pictures hanging on the wall. 

Saturday morning, bright and early and with the sun, I woke and dressed for my Baccalaureate Mass. My senior Baccalaureate Mass. 

I wore a white sundress with bright blue flowers growing along the bottom. We bought it on sale. Over that, over my white purity, I wore my navy cap and gown. Navy. Dark. Dark like the floodwaters and dark like the mud that caked the ground. The hurricane flooded away the classes’ purity, and the gowns we wore proved that. We did not wear the colors of the schools we attended after Katrina destroyed our own. Instead, we wore navy, one of Archbishop Hannan’s colors. That’s right, I said Hannan — a school destroyed, but one that will open again and be reborn in the fall. 

After the mass, I talked with teachers I had not spoken to in months. I saw friends I had not seen since the Friday before the storm. It was strange seeing people from the past like that, ghosts of a world I’d nearly forgotten about. I have to struggle to remember my schedule from the beginning of this year, and I don’t remember at all where my locker once was. Memories fade, even the good ones. 

Some people think home is with family, with no regard to physical location. Home is mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins. Home is siblings. Home is coming back after a long day and seeing relatives waiting for you, loving you. 

We had to rent a hotel room for the weekend because the drive to the city was too long to make in one morning. The hotel in which we stayed had a pool with crystal water. 

More than anything inside of me, I miss the water. I miss feeling weightless beneath the waves, twisting and turning like a mermaid. I miss skimming the water on skis. The canal and the lake meant more to me than I realized, and now, the waterways I cherished are full of hidden debris. The camp we once had there cannot even be found. 

I walked down to the pool that Saturday after Baccalaureate Mass, and I slipped off my shoes. The pavement was hot, but the end result was worth it. I stepped into the water, and it was good. 

There are things I miss, irreplaceable things that I will never experience again in my life. I miss running from the kitchen table and jumping neatly into my favorite spot on the sofa. I miss taking a shower in the middle of the afternoon and writing a book at my rolltop desk. I miss being sick and staying in my house all day, snuggled into my bed with my pillows surrounding me. I miss drinking a glass of cold milk and watching the Jonny Quest movies late at night. 

But there are new things about my life that I enjoy, too. A giant oak tree fell onto our garage during the storm and no one has moved it. I can climb onto the oak and shimmy my way past the branches to the roof. I watch the sunset from there. I play my flute by the fallen pecan in the side yard, and the sound echoes in the stillness that’s wrapped itself around my street. 

I was nervous the entire afternoon about giving my salutatorian address that night at the graduation ceremony. I hadn’t looked at the speech since I wrote it nearly two weeks ago. I didn’t feel prepared, so I went down to the pool and practiced. I listened to this catchy song I’ve grown rather fond of, and I read it over and over again. I rehearsed. I practiced my pauses and my tone of voice, all the while enjoying the coolness of the water against my skin. 

Soon, it was time to get ready, and I put on my long white dress. Nothing went over it this time. Naked purity. There was no cover for my speech, no darkness to hide behind.  This graduation was about honesty, about shedding light on the maturity we all have gained since August 29. For one night, we were normal again, with our old friends and our old traditions. White is the color that best represents that, and I think it’s fitting that all the dresses were long and flowing with a milky reminder of how we began this adventure. 

Our parents and family went ahead and filled the seats of the auditorium while my class and I waited and readied for the procession in. I would be in the front row with my friends Jenn and Candice, because we all were magna cum laude. Behind me would be my friends Eck, Leanne, and Sara. I was surrounded by my old companions, and when we walked in, I felt prepared. More than prepared. All the nervousness and fear of being exposed and humiliated fell away to reveal a cool confidence within. I felt ready, ready to finally graduate!  From MY school! 

So long we all waited to walk down that aisle, single-filed and heads held high. So long we waited to reach out and take that diploma into our hands and hold it up. We deserved that moment, and when I walked down — one foot in front of the other, one slow, careful step at a time — I realized that I was ready. Whether I had realized it or not, I had been ready for that moment long before I took that first step that night. 

The hurricane changed us all. For me, the hurricane gave me the confidence I need to overcome the challenges that face me. That night’s trial was the speech and was graduation itself. I was ready for it. 

One by one, we walked down that aisle, and we stood for each other, waiting for our class to be seated as a whole. United as a class once separated. The prodigal sons and daughters of a parish far changed from the place we once knew. But then again, we were far changed from the people we once were. Maybe that fits. 

The assistant principal gave the introduction, and he called me to the stage to give the welcoming address. My friends told me good luck, and I stood. All the nervousness that had overwhelmed me in the hotel was gone now, and I walked up the steps to the stage. I adjusted the microphone, and I spoke. 

I didn’t falter once. I was prepared. The happy ditty I had listened to before ran through my head, keeping me calm, and I spoke the words that I had written two weeks before, the words I had written to let people know that even though Hannan was destroyed, it will be built again and it will be the great school it was. 

When I finished, everyone applauded, and on stage before everyone, I smiled. The greatest moment of the entire night happened when I was walking back to my seat and Jenn stuck out her hand as I passed. I brought mine to hers, and there was a little crack sound that cut through the air as we smacked each other’s hands. She grinned at me, and I grinned at her. I had done it, and when I held my diploma tightly in my hands later that night, I realized that I had finished one giant phase in my life. The next would start in August with the beginning of college. 

I finally finished high school. No amounts of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” can really capture the feeling of standing on a stage holding a diploma from a school that you never thought would exist again. It’s a feeling of completion, of satisfaction. This year had many pitfalls and disappointments, but my graduation was not one of them. 

That night, I went back to the hotel with my family. It’s sad when a teenage girl would rather come back to a hotel with her parents and take a long, endlessly hot shower instead of going out with her friends to celebrate her high school graduation. It was an amazingly good shower, though, and when I fell into bed that night, I was content. 

Some people think home is a sense of familiarity. Not just a place with sofas, beds, and televisions. Instead, it’s a place where they are comfortable – a state of mind.  

My cousin Dawn and her husband Steve decided a few weeks ago to throw me a family graduation party because we can’t have one on our own right now. That was Sunday, and it was amazing. There was a cake and tables in her back lawn. A lot of family came, and I was so very happy that day. So many people have done so many wonderful things for me to help me along my way. I know that I don’t deserve the kindness, but whether I deserve it or not, it’s appreciated so much more than people know. My party was something special to me because I had the chance to see my family together again.  

But then obligation kicked in again. 

I applied and was accepted for an internship at Pelican Publishing Company, a publishing house much nearer to St. Bernard than to Ponchatoula. It would be easier to make the commute from the camper we have at the house than to fight the traffic from the FEMA camper. After I helped Dawn clean after my party and after I threw what dressy-casual clothes I have into a duffel bag, I made the trek to St. Bernard. I reached the parish after midnight. 

I made the journey.   

I made it home. 

The internship is great, and it reminds me every day of my deepest desire to be published, to write my stories and have people read them as I read the novels of other authors. Every day from my internship, I come home and pour myself into my own story, my own therapy. 

At the publishing house, I do everything from packaging original artwork to be returned to calling magazines, television shows, and radio stations to verify contact information. I write pitch letters, and I make flyers. I learn new things daily, and I work hard to get my assignments done and done well. They have never accepted a high school student into their internship program before me, and I want to prove to them that I am capable as a writer, as a worker, and as an individual. 

When I drive to work, along the road I take is a bump, a little hill in the path. There is another one like it on the interstate between Hammond and Ponchatoula, and I drove over it every day coming back from St. Thomas Aquinas school. I always liked this bump because it made me think I was on a rollercoaster, zooming and flying and free. 

I was driving to the publishing house this morning, and I hit this bump and I smiled, patting my car’s dashboard. “Just like home,” I told it. A second later, I realized what I said.

Just like home. 

But Hammond isn’t home. Neither is this graveyard St. Bernard has become. My physical home was destroyed months and months ago, and my family is rarely together. My father works 12-hour shifts, and my mom is always in Ponchatoula to take care of her own mother. 

And so I’m stuck here wondering: where and what is home? 

To and from work, I pass the deserted cars left on the sides of the roads and the boats still stranded on the neutral ground. There are minivans and basketball goals marooned in the middle of a field, and piles of endless garbage and debris still line every street. Broken houses still block roads, and wires and cables still run along the sidewalks. It’s a test waking up every morning to see these things in a place I once thought of as home. It hit me hard when I called Hammond home because it’s not true. Hammond isn’t home, but this St. Bernard isn’t the home I remember. There’s no family here, no sense of security. Just a wasteland, a graveyard of memories. 

Maybe home is a memory. Everything in my life is always changing. I’ve become a gypsy again. Last week, I was living in Ponchatoula, then I spent a few nights in a hotel, and after that, I found myself in St. Bernard. In only a few months, I will find myself in a dorm. 

But what if a new hurricane comes and takes that away? Katrina, Part II: The Hurricane’s Revenge. It’ll be like the Jaws series all over again, and no one ever wins in those movies. Trust me. There are always way too many sacrifices and deaths than are really necessary. Maybe one day, they’ll learn a perfect way to kill Jaws without having any casualties. Then again, it’s not like we have rebuilt the means we have to protect ourselves from the monster. No, we invite it in.  We welcome the abomination. We welcome disaster because we don’t take the proper precautions to prevent its coming. Instead, in the end, we have to use drastic means. We shoot a tank in the shark’s mouth to destroy the creature, and we airlift helpless people from the roofs of their flooded houses. 

Sometimes we learn from our mistakes, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes, we watch our normalcy be destroyed and we work hard to rebuild what we have lost. 

That’s what my family is doing each day as they work on their houses. That’s what Archbishop Hannan is doing when it decided to open again in the fall. But that’s not what I’m doing.  I’m looking for something new. 

Instead of rebuilding what I lost with my parents, I started an internship to build something new. What’s more valuable to me than a home and a bed is the future. In my future, I want something brighter, bigger, and better than I had before. 

Part of me values watching the sunset from my roof more than lying on my sofa in the middle of the afternoon. The chance to climb a fallen tree that has broken my roof and watch the sun burn the horizon has made me stronger. Experiences like that gave me the strength to deliver my speech as well as I did.

And tomorrow, when I wake up on the sofa of our little camper and drive to work past the mountains of debris and the fields of deserted trucks, over the little bump in the road, I’ll remind myself that although I might not be coming back to the St. Bernard in my memory, I am still happy, so very happy. 

Despite all the hardships, my life is amazing. I have an internship. I have had experiences that have made me a better person. I have stories to fall into. I so love watching the sunset from my roof. I’m happy in my life! I’m happy being me.

Samantha Perez is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

Read the next #FleeingKatrina entry here.

Here is Samantha Perez’s May 20 , 2006 Salutatorian speech at Archbishop Hannan High School:

Welcome Archbishop Hannan, Mr. Serio, Hannan family and friends, and my fellow classmates of the graduating class of 2006.

When we first began this school year last August, no one once considered the possibility that our senior year would become the year it did. The first day of school, we walked into Hannan and we were ready, ready to finish high school with the friends we’ve had since we began long ago as freshman, and ready to graduate and begin new chapters of our lives. We had our Ring Day parade, our Ring Mass, and the realization that we were finally seniors was starting to sink in. Our class retreat was supposed to be the weekend Hurricane Katrina hit. We all had plans—big plans—to make this year the magical time we’d dreamed about for so long.

However, reality isn’t so kind. Everything doesn’t work out the way you want it to. All our grand plans washed away when the storm passed over St. Bernard Parish. Our class was scattered and separated across the state and across the country. Instead of spending our senior year here at Hannan, we speckled the map in so many different schools. We met new sorts of people, explored new parts of the country, and we went through experiences we never thought we would have to endure.

It is hard to realize that this past year was our senior year. We didn’t have countdown tags or the chances to sign each other’s school shirts. We didn’t have our normal teachers or the classes we went to on our very first day this year. Instead, things changed, and we had to adapt and accept the fact that, despite all the differences in our lives—some good, some bad—that this was our very last year of high school.

What this past year has taught me is that each and every one of our experiences, each of our tests and each of our trials, has brought us to be here tonight, whether we are a student, a parent, a guest, or a member of the faculty. These experiences and challenges have helped us become the people we are right now, and every adventure we have in our futures will make us stronger, wiser, better individuals.

A special thanks should go to our parents, who have always been there to help us in each of the trials we have faced throughout the course of our entire lives. Our parents are the ones who gave us the opportunity to attend a great school as Hannan was and will be again. We owe so much to the parents who provide for us and teach us the lessons we will need to excel. Parents, thank you so much for all that you have done for us and will continue to do. Thank you.

One thing our experiences in attending other schools has taught us is the value of Hannan. The school’s standards were something that cannot be mimicked. We learned discipline at Hannan. We learned dedication and determination, and we learned these things through the lessons Mr. Serio taught us himself, as well as through the school lessons we learned from our teachers. Hannan’s faculty is a faculty that surpasses so many others, and the education we have received from our teachers has prepared us for the world to come. For those of us graduating tonight, our school, Archbishop Hannan, means more to us than other school we have attended, and there are reasons for that loyalty. Hannan deserves it. Hannan, through the teachers we have had, the classes we have attended, and the friends we have made here, has transformed us into the young adults we are tonight.

We had different worries and concerns last August. At night, when settled down and tucked ourselves into our beds, we had different thoughts before we drifted to sleep. All of us have changed, some in more subtle ways than others. All of us have had to sacrifice special things, and all of us have had to learn to accept unwanted, unavoidable realities.

This past year—our final year of high school—was nothing as we dreamed it might be, but because of all the hardships we faced, we are graduating tonight as stronger people in this world, ready to face more challenges and ready to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves, no matter how far away they may seem. Mr. Serio has always told us that our class was different than the rest, and in the past four years, we have worked hard to prove him right—especially this year. As a class, we have grown and flourished in the wake of this storm. Despite all the trials we have had to take on this past year, we are still together as a class, as part of the Hannan family. Now, we put high school behind us because, tonight, we graduate as the 2006 senior class of Archbishop Hannan High School.

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