Sharecropper’s grandson, Katrina survivor, Yale graduate
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — From Day One, Juanita B. Hebert always wanted her children and her children’s children to get the education she never got a chance to finish. As a teen in the 1920s, Hebert couldn’t complete school in Leland, Mississippi. She had to pick cotton and work as a maid to support her family.
Two generations later, her family’s tenacity paid off with her grandson Markus Reneau ’s graduation from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in African American Studies.
The May 20 ceremony was a milestone on Reneau’s long road since he survived Hurricane Katrina as an 8-year-old in 2005. He endured days among the crowds abandoned at New Orleans’ convention center immediately after the storm, later lived in Florida for a while and eventually moved from New Orleans to Connecticut for college. Through it all, Reneau credits the support from his “maw maw” for helping him get there. Hebert won’t get to see him graduate — she died in 2007 — but Reneau said she’ll be with him from heaven, just as she’s been all along.
“I feel like she was always on my shoulder with me on this journey,” he said.
His mother, Alma Reneau, who lives in Gretna, echoed her son’s feelings.
“Everything he does is to please me and to please her,” Alma said of her son and Hebert.
Alma Reneau always prayed for a son. God answered her prayers, she said, with a child who has taken her to places she never imagined.
Alma, a 9th Ward native who grew up in the Desire Housing Project, retired as a U.S. Army Master Sergeant after 23 years and went on to become a U.S. Postal Service employee for 25 years. Hebert watched over Markus during Alma’s time as a civilian employee. After Markus started school, he talked to Hebert, his “second mom,” every day.
Calling Hebert “the glue that kept us together,” Alma said Hebert’s stories about her life of labor sparked a thirst for knowledge in Markus, a child deemed gifted at age three who would experience the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Markus was only a third grader at the time. He saw things he couldn’t understand until he was older. The weekend before the storm, he was staying with his father, Mark Reneau, who was visiting from his native Belize, while Alma was in Baton Rouge.
It would be days after the storm before Alma could find her son, who had taken shelter with his father among the thousands who sought refuge in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. She said those days of “hell” made her want to “leave New Orleans forever.” But Markus wanted to stay and finish school in Louisiana.
“I think that’s one of the reasons he’s fighting for change in New Orleans,” Alma said. “If it was me, I’d have him go as far away as he could.”
Markus moved to Florida at age 12 to live with his father and his step-family, who introduced him to the International Baccalaureate Foundation, a prestigious educational program.
Alma said Markus only wanted to return home if he could attend a school with an IB program. The cost of private school was out of reach, but she discovered an IB program at the International High School of New Orleans. Markus returned home at 15 and thrived. He went on to study creative writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Markus taught 6th and 9th grade writing and literature to public school students as a fellow at Breakthrough New Orleans. He won a $10,000 scholarship in the National ELKS Oratorical Contest in 2015 and graduated as salutatorian that year with a 4.5 grade point average. In November 2014, Yale University granted him early acceptance and a full-ride scholarship.
When the family learned the news, Markus hugged his mom and asked what she thought “maw maw” would have said. Alma cried, sad about her son’s imminent departure but joyous for his success.
“I definitely didn’t even imagine there were colleges like Yale available because I didn’t think they were accessible for me,” Markus said.
He said there were challenges at Yale. He had to adjust to the bland food and to Connecticut’s snowy weather. He also had to endure the micro-aggressions of a place where some people, he said, act as if he didn’t belong. Students who live on campus, for instance, scan their IDs for dorm access and sometimes hold the residence gate open for their peers. Markus said he rarely received that courtesy. White students make up 56% of Yale’s campus, and black students only make up 7.1%. Other minorities make up the rest of the student body.
Markus said he’s learned to appreciate how people there can be passionate about anything, be it Middle Eastern politics or someone “having a pink chair” in their room. He’s also been exposed to people from “parts of the world I didn’t even know existed,” including someone he met from Kurdistan.
He’s also learned about stigmas specific to New Haven, Connecticut; some locals think Yale students are snobby. Markus battles that stereotype by mentoring children in the community. When he’s not mentoring, he likes to play rugby, which was an option he didn’t even know about in sports.
His passion for education is evident through his future ambitions. In September he will be a teaching fellow and college counselor at the Oakham School, a boarding school in England. He plans to apply for law school once he returns to the U.S., including the possibility of coming home to Tulane University School of Law.
He wants to return to work in New Orleans, and to help create more opportunities here for young people so they don’t have to move away to other cities. He remembers there being “a lot of young, white Teach for America teachers” during his K-12 experience, and “some of them didn’t even make it through the two years.”
He also recalled the lack of equal opportunities across the city’s charter schools. His high school, for instance, didn’t have a band until recently. He wanted to play in one growing up. Perhaps most importantly, he wants to educate people about the city’s public school system. In his education studies class at Yale, for instance, many scholars stated “all of the citizens love the charter schools and are thankful for the charter schools” in New Orleans. He often disagreed with that notion, which spurred his desire to improve the city’s school system.
“I’m interested in the policy changes that need to happen in the city and I want to take part in that,” Markus said.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com