After Katrina: High school remembers lost class of 2006
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When he was entering his senior year at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Adeyele “Yele” Akanji had been certain of his life’s trajectory: “I always thought it would be Ben Franklin, then LSU, then life.” But that was in August of 2005. He had no idea how far off course he would be taken by an approaching storm.
Hurricane Katrina reoriented his life, eventually sending the 17-year-old to a Houston suburb where he graduated from high school before going on to college. Seventy seniors like Akanji weren’t able to make it back when the high school — long considered one of the state’s most prestigious schools — reopened in January 2006.
But now former students will have an honorary diploma recognizing their achievements as officials at Franklin recognize a group that was thrown across the country at a time when they should have been worried about homecoming and college applications.
Akanji, who’s post-Katrina trajectory eventually took him to a Dallas suburb where he and his wife are expecting their second child, plans to have his honorary diploma mailed to his parents. Franklin held a special prestige for him and his family and this recognition helps close the chapter: “It’s special to me. It’s special to my parents.”
Senior year is supposed to be the pinnacle of high school when 12th-graders enjoy the final rites of passage with their friends before launching themselves into the world. And in New Orleans, a city where roots run deep, where someone went to high school is an important component of being a New Orleanian, like eating red beans and rice on Mondays. Students have to apply to get into Franklin — a public school — and being a graduate of the school is often a badge of honor.
Located on the grounds of the University of New Orleans, the school’s first floor was flooded when the levees broke. It had to be gutted, pushing students and staff into the 2nd and 3rd floors for two years. Despite the damage, it was the first high school to reopen, said Christy Read, the school’s director of development. But by that time, many students and their families had already moved away and enrolled in other schools. Huge swaths of the city were still uninhabitable.
Patrick Widhalm, who is in his second year heading the school, said the effort to honor the Class of 2006 grew out of a conversation with a former student, Michael Finkelstein, who ended up living in Austin, Texas, after the storm. Finkelstein had originally suggested actual diplomas but when that wasn’t possible the school decided to give out honorary diplomas and also invite the graduates to a brunch Sunday that is a traditional part of the school’s graduation activities. In the chaotic aftermath of Katrina, many area high schools allowed displaced seniors to get a diploma from their New Orleans high school regardless of where they graduated, according to state education officials, but Benjamin Franklin was not one of them.
Benjamin Franklin reached out to former students through the school’s Facebook page and other alumni, Read said. So far 26 people plan to attend the brunch; another 18 can’t make it but would like an honorary diploma sent to them.
Finkelstein now lives in New Orleans and plans to be at the ceremony. The then-16-year-old had just finished a five-day football camp and was getting ready for his senior football season when the hurricane struck. He ended up moving to Austin and eventually graduated there. Though he said he was grateful for the experience he had there “it never felt like it was my school.” But he also felt awkward explaining to people in New Orleans that he went to Franklin but didn’t graduate from there.
“For the seniors it really felt like we had our lives ripped out from us,” he said.
As a 17-year-old, Brandon Gassaway did not take hurricanes too seriously, even the behemoth that would become 2005′s Hurricane Katrina. The then-senior was more worried about an upcoming calculus test when he evacuated with his family. Little did he know that his hometown and house were about to be inundated with floodwaters that would force him to spend his senior year starting over in a new city.
“That leaves a big hole ... because folks went all over the place,” said Gassaway. He lives and works in the Washington DC area so won’t be able to make the ceremony but will have his honorary diploma mailed to him. He said he was very happy the school was taking the time to remember the students and felt like “a Falcon again,” referring to the school’s mascot: “It feels like we’re being welcomed back.”
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