Teacher Jenny Rious receives a plaque from her students. Image: Dwaine Scott, NBC News
Everyone probably remembers that certain teacher from high school -- the one who was young, cool and bursting with new ideas. The one who wanted to make a difference and did.
Kids at New Orleans' Warren Easton High will one day remember Jenny Rious as that teacher, especially the class of 2006. I met her recently while producing a story about Warren Easton. But her story deserves telling all on its own.
You see, Mrs. Rious started with the class of 2006 four years ago. She taught them world history as freshmen and now is prepared to see "her kids" graduate as seniors. But then Katrina washed their senior year away -- that and most of the first floor of the school. In some classrooms, all that remained were the assignments written on the board the Friday before the storm.
Mrs. Rious evacuated to Michigan. Her kids were scattered across the country. And her school was in danger of never reopening. She couldn't do much about the storm or the building, but she could make sure her kids had a senior year.
So she reached out to them. She couldn't run them down in the hallways or catch them at their lockers. Instead she tracked them down online. In November of last year, she began warreneastoninexile.com.
Call it a virtual homeroom. Students who once passed notes in class, now posted them online. Kids who screamed down the hallway, now offered Internet shout-outs. And teens who once sought advice about school and life in Mrs. Rious' class, now asked them in e-mails.
Everyone had questions: "Would the school reopen? Would there be a yearbook? What would happen to graduation? Over time, Jenny Rious found the answers. Yes, the school would reopen next year, as a charter. Yes, they would have yearbooks filled with pictures from the previous school year. As for graduation? Well, with her seniors attending schools out-of-state, it probably wouldn't make sense for them to graduate twice. But from the postings, Mrs. Rious learned it was one thing for the kids to keep in touch online, but quite another to ask them to say goodbye forever on a blog. This became her toughest assignment.
It took months of lobbying online and on the phone. Finally a Warren Easton alumni group and other faculty members joined the cause. And so, a few Sundays ago, the Class of 2006 held a "10th" reunion. It had been 10 months since the storm blew away their senior year. Now many of them were back in New Orleans. And Mrs. Rious was there, handing out yearbooks, smiling for a class/faculty photo, and clapping as "her kids" walked the stage in a ceremonial graduation.
I pulled Mrs. Rious to the side. She was proud of her students. They had been able to reclaim a few magic moments from their lost senior year. Her job was over. And so it seemed was our story about Warren Easton.
But as the reunion broke up, a group of kids commandeered the microphone. Despite the fact that time, distance and a storm had kept them apart, they had still hatched a secret plan (probably online). Someone produced a modest plaque, while another group pulled Mrs. Rious to the stage to accept it. The class of 2006 had lost their homes, their friends and their senior year. Somehow, one teacher had given them hope. The small plaque was all they could give back. But it was enough for Mrs. Rious.
If she hadn't been certain before, she was now. She had made a difference.