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Three Lessons I Learned from the Boy Katrina Hero

Three Lessons I Learned from the Boy Katrina Hero

When I first heard about the boy who stole a school bus and rescued over 300 people after Hurricane Katrina, I was fascinated. In my high school English classroom after school, I searched the internet and learned the driver, Jabbar Gibson, had been jailed for selling drugs. But then I uncovered a San Francisco Chronicle article about a second driver, Courtney Miles, who’d moved to Oakland to play basketball – at a junior college very near the home of a friend I’d already planned to visit the following week. I hadn’t been to California in twenty years, but I’d soon be only an hour away from Courtney. It was a sign. I had to find him. His was a story I wanted to tell.

I’d just started writing seriously, and I had very little confidence in my abilities. Was I crazy to think a white female 50-year-old school teacher could be the voice of an 18-year-old black man? I’d never written a book before. And a basketball story? NBA to me meant National Book Award. I emailed his coach, asking if he’d give my contact information to Courtney. I told myself I’d drop the whole subject if I didn’t hear back from him.

The coach replied -- and sent me Courtney’s phone number. My heart raced as I stepped outside my classroom and dialed. The soft Cajun voice on the other end of the line was understandably cautious, but Courtney agreed to meet me at McDonald’s in Oakland. That conversation was the first of many (mostly after his practices so at midnight my time) that would one day become a book.

From Courtney, I learned a lot about humility. His buddy Jabbar had received national media attention when his was the first bus to pull into the Astrodome in Houston after he and Courtney got separated on the road. (Courtney dropped his passengers at the Cajundome in Lafayette, LA and returned for a second group.) Jabbar was in talks with Spike Lee about a movie deal, but Courtney kept quiet about his role in the bus rescue. He’d seen Bush’s “no tolerance” speech on the Jumbotron from his cot in the Cajundome while waiting for a FEMA trailer. And with an absentee father and a mother who’d been in jail for most of his growing-up years, he’d promised himself he’d “stay straight.”

But more importantly, he didn’t feel like a hero. “It could have been anybody,” he told me, “but God chose me. He gave me a way to help, and I’m blessed I had a way to pay back all the people who helped raise me.”

It was true – the people of the Fischer projects, who knew that “Streets,” as he was called, was raising himself, stepped up. When his grandmother left before dawn each morning for her housekeeping job at a big New Orleans hotel, they watched from porches to make sure he went to school. On weekends, the neighborhood men offered tips as he honed his skills at Fox Park’s netless goal. Courtney’s first tattoo was the word “Fischer” etched across his stomach, and he always chose jersey number “15” for the 15th Ward, his Orleans Parish home.

His life there taught him resilience, another trait I witnessed. At age seven he woke up with a gun in his face on Christmas Eve because his mother owed the wrong people money. At thirteen he saw a man killed directly in front of him in a quiet alley – by a shooter he thought for a heart-stopping moment was aiming at him. In 11th grade he lived alone for months without electricity or water. His grandmother, laid off from work, had moved in with his uncles in Lafayette. Because he didn’t want to lose his ball team and his chance at a college education, he told her he was living with a cousin, but that fell through, so he broke into an abandoned house. His friends, who knew he’d be sent to foster care if the school found out, piled their food on his plate at lunch. He showered at the gym after practice and ignored the gang members who offered him rides and food on the walk “home.” At night he dressed in layers of clothing to keep warm, sometimes watching his breath condense above him as he tried to sleep.

Two years later when I met him, things hadn’t changed much for Courtney. Because his basketball scholarship in California didn’t cover room and board, he still struggled to find food and shelter. There were months when kind friends from school and church took him in, and weeks when homeless shelters were his only option.

But his faith remains strong. It’s another of Courtney’s lessons for me. No matter what his trials, I’ve never heard him complain – and he talks to God like he’s talking to a friend.  “My grandmother taught me to be ‘prayed up.’” Courtney says he thanks God every morning for giving him another day. He carries with him the names of fourteen friends who’ve died in gun battles in the New Orleans area – his “Rest in Peace list,” he calls it. “I try to live my life for them because they didn’t have a chance to do the things I get to do.”

Courtney and I spent a lot of time together, peeling apart the layers of his past. He wanted to introduce me to “Miz Gerry,” the grandmother whose wisdom guided his life even when she couldn’t be there. But the day we met in New Orleans to retrace the bus route, I learned that her grandson, Courtney’s 18-year-old cousin, had been murdered the night before. He warned me that it might be dangerous to spend time with him that day.

“Are you involved in the argument that caused the shooting?” I asked.

“No, it’s just your company, who you hang around with and stuff. It’s not always you. Because of my cousin, I’m already in it.”

The idea of being drawn into a gang war is as old as Shakespeare, but it was my first close-up view of how things worked in Courtney’s world. It took a visual of the dilapidated building where he went to school, the shabby, run-down       project apartments where he lived, and the depressed neighborhood he grew up in to make me understand. In an environment where the poor stay poor because of failing schools, lack of employment, and easy access to drugs, many young people made poor choices – and some paid with their lives.

I’m glad I met Courtney. He reaffirmed what I already knew about the people of New Orleans. Despite post-Katrina reports that called them looters and rapists and murderers, they are kind, warm, hard-working people – men who call you “baby” and walk an extra block to show you the restaurant you’re looking for. Women who speak to you on the street and ask, “How’s ya mama?” in broad river brogues. They are true originals. When I was in town for a wedding just two weeks before the storm came, I saw a man walking down St. Philip Street with a cup of coffee – wearing nothing but a bathrobe (open) and penny loafers.

I pray that Courtney can keep his humility, faith, and resilience. I hope he can “stay straight.” The odds are against him. Statistics are not in his favor. But he has flexibility and resourcefulness on his side. He told the mud-caked people from the Ninth Ward, who squeezed into an already jam-packed bus, to “get in where you fit in,” and that’s his life motto. It’s an attitude many of the former residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast embraced when over 350,000 of them lost their homes.

Several months after the storm, as a temporary Red Cross phone volunteer, I spoke with a woman whose mother and aunt, both widowed early, had lived across the street from each other in Waveland, Mississippi for over a thirty years. She told me they were sharing a small motel room, and their town had been wiped off the map. They’d lost everything – including their way of life. Today my heart goes out to those who have, for ten years, battled depression, fear, anger, and nightmares that still continue. May they find some measure of peace on this important anniversary of the storm that changed their lives forever. 



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