Disappointments abound in Inside New Orleans High. But hopes are also unstoppable.
"It's not easy growing up wondering what's next or who's next to get killed, or wondering if a person is going to kill you for no reason." Brandon Tucker is just 18 years old, and already he's seen too much. A junior at Walter L. Cohen High School in New Orleans, he's seen friends murdered and family displaced, floodwaters rising and gangs ascendant.
Contemplating his immediate future for the latest episode of National Geographic Channel's Inside series, Inside New Orleans High, Brandon is philosophical but also practical. He and his younger brother, Charles, have had to make impossible choices following the hurricanes of 2005. Cohen is, the narrator asserts, "a school of last resort, the only option available after Katrina." Bused in from other areas, starting fall classes without transcripts, living in poverty and/or with "negligent parents," many students feel no sense of loyalty or connection to the place, and have found opportunities to escape limited. Cohen Principal Arlene Kennedy says, "I can tell you the criminal record of every child that I have, because you need to know that, you need to know what's going on with your children."
The show points out that since Katrina, New Orleans has earned the title, "Murder Capital of the World" (two students are killed during the school year covered here). But it provides little context for the notion that "criminal records" might sum up "what's going on with" Cohen students. The environment is surely rough, but the show focuses too often on sensational shorthand allusions (graffiti on school walls, funerals, kids on street corners) rather than digging into the many complex forces that inspire kids' choices -- right and wrong.
Three individual stories provide occasional details. Charles, the show observes, hopes to play football at Cohen even as he is among those teens who have turned to "cliques" (the show's preferred term for "gangs"). Though he's no longer living in Magnolia Projects (which were devastated by Katrina), Charles remains a "feared" member of the reconstituted Bird Gang; as he puts it, "In the gang game, it isn't about who's doing the best, ya dig, it's all love. You ain't gotta prove your point to nobody, ya dig. It's a family."
As the narrator reiterates that such "groups" often provide a "surrogate family," the show inserts a shot of Charles in his new ride, a 2007 Mercedes sports coupe. "Everyone takes notice, the narrator says, though the camera remains focused on the car, at least until it includes footage from Charles' video diary, a conversation with Brandon in the car, as they "joy ride." Though you learn that several students have been given cameras to record their own stories for Inside, the show consists primarily of other footage, taken by the NGC film crew. The Mercedes escapade takes up a minute or so, with emphasis on the aftermath of an encounter with police. As Charles tells his interviewer, "I gave 'em a high speed chase... I got away, but somebody ratted on me or whatever." The camera looks closely at his house arrest ankle bracelet, as he pulls up his pants to show it over his NBA socks. Charles is focused on how he got caught: "It ain't legal bra," he insists, "Can't do all that rattin', 'cause rats end up dead in New Orleans."
The show doesn't pursue Charles' story, his context at home, his investment in his friends or street codes. Instead, it offers him as an example of what's scariest about kids running wild, kids without hope or options. And it contrasts him with a couple of other students, 19-year-old Tysongi Love and 18-year-old Cardwell Henderson. She's a single mother and aspiring dancer, just coming back to school ("As a young mother," the narrator notes unhelpfully, "becoming a student again has been a battle"). He's a basketball player, hoping for a scholarship to get to college. While Charles is introduced as his algebra teacher has him removed from class by security ("He's scary," says the teacher, "he makes threats regularly about killing me"), Ty's dance team coach, Julie Murphy (who is appalled that students are not supplied with pencils or books), is enthusiastic about her potential: "She loves dance and she wants her team to be really good... I wish for her to go to college."
Of the several stories recounted in Inside New Orleans High, Cardwell's is presented in the most complex and respectful way. He appears in moments of his video diary amid RIP insignias (on pillows or t-shorts), remembering lost friends and insisting that he will succeed, not for himself only, but also for his family. When his sister jokes that she's having Trix and Bud Light for breakfast, Cardwell alludes suggests they've survived relatives who make this not so funny: "When you drink like that and stuff like that," he says, "you're just wasting your life."
Katrina changed Cardwell's life irrevocably. Not only did he "take charge of his cousins" and other family members after their neighborhood was destroyed, he also survived threats from police instructed to use "deadly force if necessary" during the aftermath. Recalling what it felt like to have weapons pointed at him when scavenging for food, Cardwell has an understandably hard time trusting authorities. Still, he overcomes troubles in his senior year algebra class in order to graduate, determined to get the scholarship offered by a college coach who sees him play.
Disappointments abound in Inside New Orleans High. But hopes are also unstoppable. As frustrated as Ty becomes during the school year, as angry as Charles appears to the adults who spend too little time with him, and as passionate as Cardwell is in his pursuit of another life, each is finding his or her own way through traumas that would daunt any adult.