NEW ORLEANS — Interviewing people in a crowd is often a race against the clock. An event is often about to start, or has just ended, you have deadlines to meet, and the goal is to get a few good quotes and one or two insights from a handful of people who hopefully represent a cross section of the audience.
Thursday was no different. I was in a gymnasium at the University of New Orleans. President Obama was expected to arrive soon and talk about the city’s rebuilding. My goal was to get a few good interviews with local residents about how that was going.
I approached one man. He said he didn’t live there, and was all together uninterested in talking to me. So I turned to the young woman, wearing a baseball cap and sitting by herself, sitting one row in front of him. I asked her a question about how the city was recovering.
The young woman pulled out a piece of lined notebook paper and started writing down a sentence in red ink. I was surprised, but assumed she could not talk. And my first instinct was to thank her and move on to someone who could speak, to move the process along. But I waited to see what she wrote down.
It turned out that Hannah Holmes, of Gentilly, had some fairly strong and articulate views on how New Orleans was recovering. And what she said didn’t necessarily jive with the official line coming from the White House, which was that things were better than they were under the Bush administration.
“From what I have seen, recovery has slowed substantially,” Hannah wrote deliberately in a plain script, holding the paper so I could read it as she wrote each word. “Where I live, half the houses are empty and no one is making an effort to rebuild. At first there was a rush and now it seems stagnant.”
“All my mom’s family is from the Ninth Ward, and I don’t see anything happening there now,” she wrote.
This went on for a few more minutes. I asked a few more questions, and she wrote a few more sentences. I asked her what she was studying (sociology, fine arts, and pre-law) and how old she was (20).
Then I asked her how long she had been unable to speak. Hannah gave a short and almost imperceptible shake of her head and bent her head to write at the top of the page, “Vow of silence.”
She paused, then wrote, “1 month.”
Understandably, my next question was a simple one. Why?
This is what she wrote:
1.) To learn social expectations (verbal and nonverbal).
2.) I want to be a policy writer and if I can’t stick to something difficult for myself then I’m not fit to make decisions that affect the lives of others.
3.) To observe.
4.) To focus and study and see if my vigilance increases.
I was a bit nonplussed but also intrigued by this young woman, a skinny girl with big eyes, and by her rather remarkable quest. The interaction stayed with me throughout the day. And as the president’s visit to New Orleans was later overshadowed by breathless TV reports on a homemade helium balloon that was thought to be carrying a 6-year-old boy, Hannah’s stand for silence took on even more significance.
In a day when senseless noise drowned out nearly everything else, one young person decided she wasn’t going to add to it. And in a cultural moment when communication is becoming faster to the point where e-mail is no longer quick enough, she had decided to slow things down to the speed of the handwritten word. It was a stand, whether she knew it or not, for meaning and thoughtfulness over thoughtless chatter.
I plan to talk to Hannah when her verbal fast ends in a few days. I’m looking forward to hearing what she learned.
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times