Hello, my name is Tom, and I am a nutria.1 I first came to New Orleans in February of 2007 as part of a house gutting team. I returned that summer, fell in love with New Orleans, and moved here for good after graduating from college in 2008. On a research grant from the Harvard Kennedy School, I spent my first year in the city doing the bulk of the research for We Shall Not Be Moved. Then, hoping to contribute in a more hands-on way to the city’s recovery, I taught fifth and sixth grade writing at KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts for two years as a Teach for America corps member. I spent the 2011-2012 academic year finishing We Shall Not Be Moved, teaching a seminar for sixth graders at McDonogh 15, and writing case studies for the Harvard Kennedy School. In my free time, I play the fiddle for a couple of up-and-coming local bands, which consist of a healthy mix of natives and nutrias.
Starting in August of 2012, I will split my time between New Orleans and Cambridge, MA, where I will begin to pursue a PhD in sociology at Harvard. I plan to focus on kids and education in New Orleans.
1. Backstory: Donn, the proprietor of a tattoo parlor that operates below my apartment, recently hosted a crawfish boil. While he tended the roaring propane burner and stirred the forty-gallon pot, I sidled up for some conversation. We discussed the secret to keeping crawfish tender (pour ice into the pot after the critters have boiled for 2-3 minutes), the competition between the 400 legal and semi-legal tattoo parlors in greater New Orleans, and nutrias. According to Wikipedia, the ultimate arbiter of truth, a nutria is a “large, herbivorous, semiaquatic rodent and the only member of the family Myocastoridae.” According to Donn, I am a nutria. He means no disrespect.
“After the levees broke, and all of these different folks started moving down here, my friends and I started to refer to them as New Orleanians,” Donn told me, stressing the first syllable of the descriptor instead of the third. “But after a while, that got cumbersome. And then I thought, ‘Nutrias!’” I started laughing, but Donn wasn’t joking. “No, no, hear me out,” he said. “I know everyone calls them nutria rats, but really they’re more closely related to rabbits. And I know they’re an invasive species, eating all of the cypress shoots and killing the wetlands. But the point is, they’re here to stay. They’re part of the landscape now.”