“Hands Clear!” in New Orleans by Ben Snyder, Head of Upper School
Each March break since 2005, Sarah and I have ventured out in to the world with Nobles students and teachers—New Orleans, Vietnam, Cambodia, India and South Africa. I have written and spoken often about the benefits of these experiential learning opportunities—broadening one’s world view, building confidence to make a difference, the increased understanding of complex issues, and the growth that comes from taking on real challenges in unfamiliar circumstances. This year, however, I was reminded of another benefit of these opportunities that is often overlooked.
This March I was part of Nobles’ sixth trip to New Orleans to continue the recovery work from Hurricane Katrina (yes, there is still lots to be done, and there are still homes untouched almost seven years after the storm). Our group of 42 students and eight adults worked in schools, soup kitchens, community centers, on wetland restoration projects and home-building construction jobs. I was assigned to work with the St. Bernard Project, helping to rebuild the home of Bertha Wilson. Bertha is an 85-year-old disabled widow whose husband had been the pastor of the community church for decades. Her home on Buchanan Street was destroyed by the flood, and halfway through the rebuilding process her contractors walked away from the project, leaving an unfinished and unsafe building and making her yet another victim of contractor fraud.
Two teams of Nobles students quickly learned about painting and patching, but our two biggest jobs were to completely tile a bathroom and install baseboards and moulding throughout the entire house. The former required attention to a very precise set of requirements; the latter mandated real attention to safety as using an electric table saw was necessary to cut baseboards and moulding to exact measurements. Given that power tools were involved, I insisted that I oversee the baseboard project as two Nobles students from very different corners of the Nobles world set about their task.
One could not imagine two more different Nobles students. Jake is an athletic Class II boy—a big, strong two-sport varsity athlete with an easy sense of humor, his Nobles hat permanently on backwards with an affable and comfortable demeanor. A somewhat shy, unpretentious and friendly 5'1" senior for whom English is her second language, Ashley moved to Boston from Taiwan in Middle School and has availed herself of every opportunity at Nobles in the music and science programs. It was clear that while Ashley and Jake had regularly passed each other in the halls, their worlds had not crossed in any substantive way. Yet when put to this task over the course of two and a half days, they became an efficient and effective team.
My biggest concern, however, was the table saw. I definitely wanted both of them to return home with fingers intact. But I shouldn’t have worried at all. Quickly, they figured out their system—together they would measure and get the correct angles set and then position the piece of wood exactly on the saw. Jake would say, “Hands clear,” before he engaged the power. Ashley would respond, affirming, “Hands clear.” Then Jake would make the final cut. Their immediate respect and care for each other was clear. Two kids. Different worlds. One job. Safety first. New friends.
Travel, service and working with young people create many serendipitous moments. Sometimes our eyes are opened to new worlds. Often we are pushed to reflect on difficult problems. Yet almost always there is simply the positive impact that new friendships have on our lives and on our community. More than 140 Nobles teachers and students took all or part of their spring breaks to learn, grow and serve together. They brought back many things—interesting ideas and perspectives, a souvenir or two, and some powerful memories.
We also brought back new friendships (and perhaps new mantras like, “Hands clear”) that will make Nobles an even better place for all of us.