Nicole Maillet has found the no-nonsense atmosphere of Presentation of Mary Academy about as far removed from her former school as Methuen is from her hometown of Metairie, La., VALLEY DISPATCH/JON HILL
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BY JENNIFER AMY MYERS, Valley Dispatch Staff

METHUEN — Nicole Maillet knew that it was bad when her mother told her to pack her things on the morning of Aug. 28. They had been through a lot of hurricanes before, but had never evacuated. She packed enough clothes for three days.

After 13 hours of driving in an attempt to outrun Hurricane Katrina, Maillet, 17, and her family had reached Meridian, Miss., 100 miles from their Louisiana home, only to be forced to sleep in their car at a gas station.

The next day they drove deeper into Mississippi, eventually finding a motel with vacancies where Maillet, her mother, stepfather and grandmother stayed for a week.

“Every time we turned on the television we cried,” recalled Maillet. “I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking, I know that place. I’ve been there, how can it possibly be under that much water?”

It was three days before they were able to reach anyone back home, only to find that the family’s home in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, had been destroyed by flood waters and a fallen tree.

“I felt like my whole life was taken from me,” Maillet said. “I told my parents to please send me to Massachusetts to live with my stepbrother Mark. I didn’t want to deal with what was going on in Louisiana.”

Not wanting to split up, the family drove for two straight days before reaching Mark Landry’s Methuen home.

Maillet, a cheerleader at East Jefferson High School who was academically ranked eighth in her class of 208, suddenly found herself a high-school senior without a school. Her parents returned to Louisiana, while she stayed with Landry and his wife, Lori.

Later that week Maillet began classes at Presentation of Mary Academy, the alma mater of her sister-in-law.

“We were prepared to do whatever we could for her, anything to help her out,” PMA Principal Rose Maria Redman said. “It was important to her parents that she be enrolled in school right away.”

“I was really scared because I have gone to school with the same people since kindergarten. I knew no one,” the outgoing Maillet said. “I started school on a Thursday, and Friday night I went out with a group of new friends. They just automatically took me in.”

Maillet is attending PMA tuition-free. The school embarked on a fund-raising campaign that raised $2,500, and included letting the students pay $3 on specified “dress down” days to shed their uniforms and wear whatever they wanted to school.

“The money is being used to pay for my portion of the Cotillion de Noel and to pay for, as much as possible, the plane tickets to and from Louisiana to visit my family throughout the school year,” explained Maillet. “I just can’t get over how these people give and give unconditionally. It amazes me.”

The move from the Deep South to New England has been a big adjustment for Maillet. She is learning how to live without her parents for the first time, and getting to know her stepbrother, 12 years her senior, who she is very fond of but did not grow up with. She is attending a private school, which is exclusively female, for the first time.

And her ears won’t stop popping.

“We have no hills back home, everything is flat,” she laughed. “Up here I can’t believe the hills, up here I’m constantly popping my ears.”

“The other thing is here you have to get on the interstate to get anywhere,” Maillet said. “I know y’all call it the highway, but it says interstate right on it — Interstate 495.”

And then there is the seafood issue.

“Y’all are supposed to have good seafood here, but when you order anything with shrimp, you get like three little shrimp,” she marveled. “In New Orleans, you get like 20 huge shrimp. I’ve been eating a lot of red sauce up here.”

Overall, she is enjoying her temporary life as a New Englander, despite the lack of Gulf shrimp. She is especially thrilled with her new school, a definite upgrade from the problem-ridden public school she attended in Metairie.

“The public school I was going to had a high arrest rate and a lot of discipline problems. That’s a distraction that is hard to overcome and stay focused,” she said. “It is much easier to do well here. There are no discipline problems and everybody is smart. No one is here just to slack off.”

Maillet will finish high school in Methuen and then plans on heading back to Louisiana during the summer. In the fall she will attend Louisiana State University, where she will major in psychology.

Have a story idea? E-mail Jennifer Amy Myers at jmyers@thevalleydispatch.com.