By hannah robert, guest contributor
A school campus with the lights on but empty. The school doors barricaded, still keeping students out. The school cafeteria not holding food but instead debris. The school parking lot with no cars parked but instead dumpsters. The building is closed, and yet, school continues.
South Terrebonne High School is a school in lower Terrebonne Parish that was devastated when Hurricane Ida hit on Aug. 26, 2021. Since then, the students have not set foot within the main school buildings.
They platooned at H.L. Bourgeois High School last year and now attend classes in trailers, and yet they are an A school and have successful sports and band programs this year. Through it all, they have maintained their culture through sharing in community, giving without expecting anything in return and having hope.
When the hurricane hit, it changed the South Terrebonne area for good. Katy Ledet, activities coordinator at the school, says that everyone talks about time in terms of “before and after Ida” because that was when time and reality changed. South Terrebonne had 970 students before the hurricane, but after it hit, the numbers went down to 826. The students were out of school until Sept. 28 and off their campus for one year.
When they went to school at H.L Bourgeois, students attended their classes from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Students would often not get home until 7:30 p.m. or later because of traffic and problems staffing buses. The problems with platooning didn’t end there. There were also deeper problems of being away from home.
Hayden Robichaux, student council and cheer sponsor, says “It was a traumatic experience for all of us. It felt like we were in survival mode. We were able to have class thanks to HLB, but we kept our heads down and didn’t realize how big what we were going through was until it was over.”
Ledet says that it was all about being in a blue school. They had prom in H.L. Bourgeois’ gym with their mascot, the Brave, looking down at them. She says that everywhere she looked it was their colors and she just wanted to be back in a green school.
“Not being surrounded by our colors, traditions, mascot, community and culture was so jarring. We were so far removed from our community and our green school. We needed to be back on the bayou” Ledet says
They had to pause their traditions because they only had 35-minute classes and one football field for all of the parish’s schools to use.
St. Ann Catholic Church in Bourg helped South Terrebonne during that year by giving them a place to hold events. The church gave them a key to their community center with no strings attached. They didn’t have to pay for expenses or book days to use the building. It was open to them.
The South Terrebonne baseball team’s journey to the playoffs gave the community hope for the first time after the hurricane. No one expected the team to do anything because of the struggles they had to deal with, but they did it anyway. Ledet was live streaming the semi-final game for dozens of students at H.L. Bourgeois during recess.
As she watched the team make the play to win their spot in the finals, Ledet broke down. She cried, hugged, laughed and cheered for the Gators.
“It was the first time in this very blue school that we had such a perfect, green memory,” she says.
The players played for their community and dedicated the school’s first state championship win to them. The team gave hope to the community for the first time since Hurricane Ida hit.
“For a moment, nobody was worried about how far away school was. Nobody was worried about insurance,” Ledet says. “Nobody was worried about the tarp on their roof. Everybody was just watching baseball.”
The community’s mindset shifted from focusing on the rebuilding to celebrating with the Gators. The community honored that throughout this year by making them captains of the Hercules parade and throwing banquets. The South Terrebonne baseball field is being repaired in time for the baseball season in the spring, so the Gators can play at home.
This school and its community has helped each other, asking for nothing in return. The students have given the community something to celebrate and hope for during the long process of piecing their lives back together. The community has donated money, equipment and buildings to use to the school.
“That is the essence of not only being Cajun but being a Gator,” Robichaux says. “It’s like when we were gutting my mom’s house after the storm. My neighbors came over and helped out just because, and while they were there, we fixed them dinner.”
On Aug. 4 2022, the building of the trailer classrooms was finished and teachers got access to the buildings. The next day was their scheduled open house. Open house at South Terrebonne is normally a scheduled event with parents moving from classroom to classroom on a bell schedule to meet teachers. Because there was no time to prepare, the school hosted a different kind of open house. They unlocked the doors of the new campus and just let people walk around and take it in.
Robichaux says that it turned into a “Where are you now?” talk. Everyone could finally see what progress has been made on the school, so they talked about what progress everyone had made at home. Who was back in their houses, who was still living in campers, who still had nothing and how everyone felt.
Robichaux says that everyone breathed a sigh of relief that they were finally back home at South Terrebonne. They didn’t have to drive their kids across Houma every day for school. School would finally take place back on South Terrebonne’s campus.
Just because they were back on campus didn’t mean all of their problems were solved. The teachers had classrooms with desks and Smartboards, but they didn’t have any supplies or decorations for their rooms. The campus was built, but there was no seating outside for students to use before classes and at lunch.
This is where the community gave back to the school. South Terrebonne alumni paid for and built picnic tables and benches. They also bought outdoor yard games for them to use at lunch. The Terrebonne Foundation For Academic Excellence and the Bayou Community Foundation donated $40,000 to the school for the teachers and faculty to make their classrooms and offices more than just blank rooms.
Another problem they had to deal with was the feeling of campus. Parents were concerned about the mud tracks on campus and the trailers that their kids would be going to school in. Instead of calling it the ST trailer park, Robichaux had the idea to rebrand it to be called “The Dock.”
“I decided to call the wooden platforms that connect the buildings ‘The Dock’ because it’s like when you pull your boat to a dock behind your camp,” Robichaux says. “The students pull their ‘boats’ or cars up to The Dock and tie up to their home for the day.”
The Dock reminds people of their camps in Cocodrie that got damaged or lost in the storm and that South Terrebonne can be that second home for the community.
“I don’t feel like we are second-rate or that we have to make do. We aren’t at the South Terrebonne trailer park. We are at ‘The Dock,’” Ledet says.
The main campus sustained roof damage, but most of the building is still intact and is able to be repaired instead of rebuilt. The repairs are estimated to be finished by December 2024, but most people think it’ll take longer.
“We’re not waiting on the building to get finished,” Robichaux says. “We’re focused on making these kids’ experience as close to that of any other South Terrebonne graduate.”
Ledet says “What we’ve learned through all of this is that ST is not a building. South Terrebonne is the people and not even just the people that are in the building every day. It’s the students, teachers, alumni, future students and the whole community that make South Terrebonne what it is.”
If South Terrebonne had to combine with another school, they would lose their community and its traditions like Ellender week and spirit link competitions. South Terrebonne and Ellender Memorial High School are rivals because they share a football field. That is the biggest game of the season for South Terrebonne according to Ledet. Football players decorate the outside of the school the night before the game with palmettos and moss to make it look like a swamp. Ledet says “We didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until we weren’t doing it at HLB.”
One of the traditions that Robichaux is ready to get back to is the Carnival Tableau. A carnival tableau is a party for people who ride in the same parade to get together before the parade season to celebrate. South Terrebonne took that idea and used it to showcase students.
The athletes and popular students get featured on homecoming court in the fall, but in the spring, the kids who are involved in band, clubs, theater or are gifted in academics are part of the carnival court. The maids decorate Mardi Gras trains or masks to wear at the parade. It is a right of passage for women in southern Louisiana to serve as maids in Mardi Gras parades, and South Terrebonne gives their students a chance to participate in that in front of their community.
The majority of the crowd for a Friday night football game are alumni. Ledet says “People come to the game just to watch ST football. They don’t even know any of the players, but they still come cheer for them because these kids are the community’s kids and everyone is cheering them on.”
Cindy Doiron, a South Terrebonne alumna, loves hearing the band practice from her house across the bayou from the school.
Both Robichaux and Ledet couldn’t describe exactly what makes them stay after each storm or challenge, just that they can’t leave. Most of the faculty and staff are alumni. Robichaux says that he was inspired to teach at the school because it’s a generational school. “It’s where my grandparents, parents and cousins went to school and where my sister will go to school. It’s home.” It is the family-like community and its intangible qualities that make them stay.
South Terrebonne graduate Al Levron, ‘73, was the Terrebonne Parish Council Manager for 36 years. “The relationships he made at ST built trust and communication with local citizens, lawyers and congresspeople.”
Hurricane Ida was one and done, but the community still has to deal with the everyday threats of erosion. Students and teachers at ST know that this directly affects them, so clubs at ST try to fight back by setting up and managing recycling on campus and volunteering for different community organizations to help slow the effects of erosion.
Franklin Associates VP Risa Mueller says that her ST graduation class motto was “Stay alive in ‘85”. Mueller says “Stay alive – or really, helping the parish stay alive – has been a key factor of my work in disaster management.” Mueller worked on the Road Home Initiative after Hurricane Rita and on the relocation of the Isle de Jean Charles people.
She says “I’m always proud to share that I’m from Terrebonne Parish because these people have always been resilient and innovative. They pick up and carry on, no matter the situation, and help their neighbors do the same. That’s what life is about, and I don’t think anyone understands that as well as Gators do.”
Ledet starts everyone’s school day with morning announcements, and every day she ends it with “Be a proud member of the Swamp and have a great day.” The way she sees it is that the kids take that to heart. Being a member of the Swamp community and having Gator pride aren’t just high school clichés. They are part of this community and its culture. It’s giving back to others without asking for anything in return, sharing in each other’s victories and having hope no matter what.