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In a New Classroom, Todd Larche Slowly Finds the Way

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2005

One in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area

One of the hardest things for Todd Larche at his brand-new teaching job has turned out to be the commute home.

Every afternoon since starting work last Wednesday at a Southeast Washington school, he's ended up near Baltimore before finding his way back to his in-laws' home in Silver Spring.

He's spent hours in traffic and it's left him too tired for family time with 5-year-old daughter Kristen, newborn son Todd Jr. or wife Michele.

But then it's been a season of tough adjustments for the Larche family.

As with everything since Hurricane Katrina, it's just going to take time for Todd to find his way. And while the drive is tricky, the job has other challenges as well.

For eight years, Todd was an elementary special education teacher in New Orleans. He was used to young kids, a short commute and, of course, students who didn't call him everything but a child of God.

On his first day at the DC Alternative Learning Academy, a high school for 62 kids who've been labeled emotionally disturbed, the students started needling him. One girl joked, he says, "that New Orleans was [expletive] up. I told her, 'That's inappropriate, we shouldn't talk like that, we should be considerate of other people's feelings.' "

She continued cursing at him and a counselor took her from the room, Todd recalls. He sighs. "You have to be patient. You can't have thin skin," he says. Still, he's not used to that from a student.

"It's sobering," he says. "The societal woes overrule anything I am going through in terms of Katrina."

He's also adjusting to nearly grown kids. "I'm used to dealing with babies, and while they have problems or even might curse now and then, they are easier to mold and get back in line. . . . There's a difference in terms of patience one has with minors" than with older children, he says.

On Monday afternoon, Todd stood near the school's entrance smoking a cigarette. He started smoking again after the hurricane but quit nearly a month ago. "These jokers got me smoking again," he says, "but I need that break every now and then to step outside and have me a Joe."

Still, he's an optimistic guy and even during a tough first week he's found reason to hope.

Last week a student started telling him about his "play" cousins and the dangers of living in Southeast Washington. "He's loud and he jokes but it's obvious he's got a lot of hurt in him and he just wanted somebody to talk to," Todd says.

The boy asked how long Todd was going to be teaching.

"Why?" Todd asked. "You worried about me just coming into your life and leaving?" When the student said yes, "I said, 'I'm going to be here about a year, is that all right?' "

"That's a start," said the student.

The children at the Alternative Learning Academy may have problems, but they want to come to school, Todd says. And for some it's not a question of smarts. "They just need to learn self-control and that character counts."

It's something he tries to help with in his morning social studies class and when he assists in other classes throughout the day. In afternoon mathematics, the decibel level rarely gets below moderate playground din. As a teacher instructs students to work on algebra definitions, Todd walks through the class offering encouragement and trying to relieve the tensions that constantly threaten to spill over.

One boy is rummaging through the math teacher's desk, and she's asked him to stop repeatedly. "Do the right thing, son," Todd says. When the boy stops, Todd encourages, "There you go." Later he stops another student from throwing a stapler and always he tells the kids not to curse. "You don't have to add all the extra adjectives," he tells them.

After school Todd smokes a cigarette. This was a good day. No fights, no one restrained. Instead of only half the class doing their work, a majority of the class did it. In his new place, small accomplishments mean a lot.

At the end of a good day at his new school in his new city, Todd Larche was feeling optimistic.

He even laughed when he ended up near Baltimore.

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