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Sept. 22, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 2

Evan Clary, a New Orleans schoolteacher and Loyola University graduate student, feels welcome at Boston College, but is looking forward to returning home.

Loyola graduate student wants to help rebuild a shattered city

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

For Evan Clary, who left New Orleans hours before Hurricane Katrina struck, there is no question of going back.

He has settled into the Lynch Graduate School of Education master's program, and an apartment in Newton, but in his heart Clary knows that his future is in New Orleans.

The Crescent City has been Clary's home for about six years, where he teaches English at a private high school, Isidore Newman, attends Loyola University and enjoys New Orleans' unique sights and sounds. Having grown up in what he describes as "nomadic" fashion - 11 different states and four countries - Clary believes he has found his habitat in New Orleans, and he's not giving it up without a fight.

So, while Clary is enormously grateful to Boston College for enrolling him as a temporary student, he is already looking ahead to his return to New Orleans.

"This will be a unique opportunity to rebuild the city and, hopefully, do so in a way that will be beneficial for all, especially those who are poor and disenfranchised," said Clary, who directs the community service program at Isidore Newman. "I definitely want to be a part of it."

Clary acknowledges the difficulty in making a complete investment in his temporary home. "I think about it a lot. BC is so welcoming, so sympathetic, so compassionate. You ought to belong to a community like this, right?

"But when I hear a song with a New Orleans connection, I have a strong feeling. It is such an evocative city, and definitely has its hooks in me."

Barely four weeks ago, Clary was preparing for the start of the academic year at Isidore Newman, and another semester at Loyola. But he awoke on Aug. 27 to learn the approaching storm that hadn't been considered a serious threat to New Orleans was now a destructive hurricane. The next day, Clary found refuge at the family home of a friend in Mississippi, although it took more than 13 hours to make what was ordinarily a four-hour trip.

"We watched Katrina hit, and just figured we'd get a few days off," recalled Clary. "But it became obvious that it would be a long time before we could ever go back to New Orleans."

In the aftermath of Katrina, as BC and other universities offered to take in New Orleans area students, Clary's mother, who as a Connecticut native was familiar with Boston College, suggested Clary contact the University about enrolling in the Lynch School. He spoke with LSOE Assistant Dean for Graduate Enrollment Arline Riordan, and began the process of transferring there.

But it was impossible to get a flight out of Mississippi until Labor Day Weekend, and so Clary had to wait - which became intolerable. He and his friends left to volunteer at a Red Cross shelter near Alexandria, La.

"We tried not to watch TV, but we couldn't help it," he said. "We felt very guilty sitting in a safe place, in luxury, while so many others were suffering. We decided to help."

Where Clary had expected to find "rage and panic" at the shelter, "there was just despondency and resignation" among many of the evacuees.

"This little girl was very aggressive, and kept running up and hitting me, telling me I needed to take a shower," said Clary. "I found out later that it was her seventh birthday that day, and this is where she had to spend it."

By the end of Labor Day Weekend, Clary had arrived in Boston and fully enrolled at BC. "They were wonderful. There was a lot of red tape involved, but they said 'Don't worry about the details, let's just get you in here.'"

The people he has met at BC "have been very understanding," said Clary, who nonetheless feels somewhat uncomfortable about his status: "I don't want to be thought of as exploiting such kindness."

He also has found many of the Lynch School's major areas of research appeal to him. "Even though I teach in a private school at some remove from the problems public schools face, I'm tremendously interested in issues surrounding social justice, testing and diversity. In fact, at Isidore Newman we are looking to improve our own racial and socioeconomic diversity."

Clary is no stranger to Massachusetts, having earned his undergraduate degree from Amherst, and visited Boston as a child. He also has friends in the area, and knows a few Isidore Newman alumni are attending college in Greater Boston. Slowly but surely, Clary says he's getting to know his way around town.

But however much he might enjoy Boston, Clary's love for New Orleans is palpable. He'll enthuse over the city's "brass band sound," a combination of funk and hip-hop, or recall one of his favorite activities: taking a blanket and bottle of wine out to Audubon Park to sit and watch the boats chug by on the Mississippi.

There's no way for Clary to know yet how much of the world he left behind can be reclaimed. From what he can piece together from aerial photos and other information, his apartment in New Orleans appears to have escaped serious damage ("The water supposedly reached two feet in that neighborhood; my place is four feet from the ground."). There also are regular updates from Loyola and Isidore Newman, both of which expect to re-open Jan. 1.

"But you don't recognize the significance of your social network - friends, colleagues, even the barista in your favorite coffee shop - until it's gone. And you can't predict if someone will just decide they've had it and won't return."

The distance from New Orleans and the passage of time since have helped crystallize Clary's assessment of the events of late August and early September, and what should happen next.

"There was a complete institutional failure at all levels, local, state and federal, and it makes me very angry. But since then I've seen the work of American civil institutions and individual volunteers, and to me those are the entities that have shown their best. So as the rebuilding effort in New Orleans takes shape, I hope the grassroots networks are the ones who lead the way, not some corrupt agency or enterprise.

"Nothing puts it all in greater perspective for me than the fact of my being able to escape New Orleans as easily as I did. Things come much easier when you have the means. So when you think about those who couldn't leave, who have even less than they did before, it reminds you that it's your social duty to give back."

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