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Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New school, new state, new life: Thankfully, football is universal

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle Times has been following the Richburg family, who survived Hurricane Katrina and traveled from Biloxi, Miss., to Olympia to live with their relatives, Zenas and Michelle Richburg. This is the fourth chapter.

As first days go, it was not his worst. There were plenty of hellos and handshakes and offers of help.

But lunchtime was still lonely. Demetrius Richburg, 11, sat silently over his mashed potatoes. The other kids at South Bay Elementary School were talking, using students' names he did not know. He could not will their words his way.

"I'm waiting," the sixth-grader said, looking over at his classmates, then cleaning his plate of food. "Still waiting."

Demetrius and his brother Jeroid, 10, started the new school year in Olympia yesterday, three weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit their hometown of Biloxi, Miss. They arrived in the state with 12 other family members last week, wearing the clothes they wore when the hurricane hit. Their Uncle Zenas, who used to live in Biloxi and now lives in Olympia, had gone down South to collect them.

The family is living at a hotel in Olympia, courtesy of the Red Cross. With some sleep behind them and food vouchers in hand, the adults are facing their own "firsts," including looking for jobs and places to call home.

Back in Biloxi, this new life seemed glamorous. Demetrius had only good things to say about it. He would make new friends. He would like the weather. He would miss his grandfather, his grandmother, a few of his friends — but not much more from home.

But in the back seat of the van yesterday morning, he sat slouched in his new clothes, saying he didn't want to go to school. He climbed out of the van, moving slowly to the front office, offering to take his brother to his classroom. It was only when Jeroid started asking questions, all anxious, that Demetrius started to straighten up.

"You'll figure all that out later," he told his brother, a fourth-grader.

The school was not brand new to the boys. Their aunt, Michelle Richburg, had taken them to meet teachers and some students last week. But that did not feel like much comfort right now. The brothers shuffled down the hallways, with strange smiling adults at their sides.

In the classroom, Demetrius saw his name on the board, along with the word "Welcome." He settled into a cluster of desks, looked mostly at the floor, fumbled with his new folders.

The first order of business was art, his least-favorite thing. He was supposed to pencil in pieces of a tiger's face, but he got it mixed up. He scowled. He worked in silence. He looked beyond his own elbows to the other students' work, then back at his own.

"I got a feeling I'm not doing it right," he said. "It's ugly."

Then, shortly before recess, the day started to turn. There was talk in the class of the hypothalamus and what it controls in the body. Slowly, Demetrius raised his hand.

"Sweat?" He was right.

There were good things about this school, Demetrius decided. It started late, at 9 a.m. The gym was at least 50 times bigger than his old gym, if not more. The playground was even bigger than that. The food was hotter, the teachers were nicer and you could get up and move around without getting scolded.

And there were two recesses. Anytime he got discouraged, Demetrius held up two fingers, a reminder to himself of how good he had it.

The day was getting better, but still it was not all good. There was the silence of lunch to get through. Demetrius waited as long as he could. Then he jumped in on a conversation with some advice on how to do a back flip on a trampoline: It's easy if you throw your whole body back into it.

"If you break your neck, all you gotta do is wear a brace," he said.

Late in the morning, there was talk of the hurricane. Demetrius' mother, Angie Richburg, had told him this time would come. They discussed it on the plane to Seattle, and she urged him to be patient.

"Don't get aggravated," she told him then. "They haven't been through what you've been through."

As the storm washed up the steps of his house, Demetrius climbed into the attic and stayed there for four hours. There were 13 people up there, praying and watching the water push houses around from their view through slats in the attic. That house is now abandoned, gone wet with black mold. He could not save a thing of his from it.

The children in his class did some research on the hurricane when they learned about Demetrius' arrival. They read stories. They looked at maps. But when it came time to ask all the questions — What did it sound like? What did it look like? What did you do? — they skipped those tough ones.

They asked how long it took to fly from Biloxi. They asked where Demetrius was living now. They asked whether he liked Dungeness crab.

Demetrius slouched in his seat, pointing with his pencil to call on each person whose hand shot up.

"Did anyone in your family die?" one boy asked.

"No," said Demetrius.

He called on the next hand to go up.

"Do you like football?"

When Demetrius said it was his favorite, there was a chorus of approval.

"Aw, nice," said one boy.

"Cool, I do that too," said another.

And in the end, football was the thing that brought Demetrius into the fold. He played the first game at morning recess, brushing up against boys he could barely look in the eye back in class. After lunch, he hit his swagger, grabbing the role of captain and refusing the job of quarterback to anyone but himself.

"Hut!" he called out.

And when the player did not move fast enough, Demetrius called again: "I said, 'Hut!' "

He danced around the field, dodging the hands that wanted to tag him. He threw long and caught often and scored a touchdown that made his smile go wide.

Halfway through the game, he caught sight of Gail Brown, a family friend who helped the boys' uncle bring the family to Olympia. She drove one of the vans that took nine children and five adults from Biloxi to the airport in Jackson, Miss. And she charged all their plane tickets on her credit card.

"Time out!" Demetrius called. He ran over to the sidelines. He hugged "Miss Gail" hard. Then he turned back to the boys.

"Time in!" he yelled, and ran back into the game.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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