Wednesday, May 25, 2011
A return to Joplin East Middle School after tornado
I had walked with Daily Beast/Newsweek reporter Terri Greene Sterling from where we had parked in a driveway close to 13th and Duquesne to the roundabout. The sound of sirens that had punctuated the night air Sunday had been replaced by a chain saw symphony as homeowners and those who rushed to the area to do whatever they could do to help, began the slow, painstaking process of clearing a landscape that would have seemed unthinkable...still seems unthinkable...just two days earlier.
As we turned onto 20th, heading east toward my school, we came across a couple celebrating one of the small victories that have served as a counterpoint to the death and destruction, a beloved pet cat had been found alive and uninjured, hiding in a small crawlspace beneath the rubble of what once had been a home. It wasn't all good news for the couple, which had slipped into the bathroom for protection when the tornado hit. They were okay, the kids were okay, the cat was okay...but the family has two cats. The second was still among the missing.
As we talked to them, they unearthed a precious family picture, unharmed by the forces of nature. Earlier, they had been able to salvage irreplaceable photos of the wife's sister, who died a few years ago.
The scene was the same as far as the eye could see, on both sides of the street. Homes were leveled; debris was scattered. What appeared to be some kind of costume was hanging precariously at the top of what was left of an oak tree.
We gingerly stepped around any wires that were strewn across the street, though they were not likely to still pose any kind of danger. Finally, after stopping to talk to a few more survivors and workers, we turned into the driveway at East Middle School.
My room, at the end of the eighth grade hallway, is at the first corner of the building we reached. I could tell nothing about its condition; boards were covering where windows had once been. I had been told Monday that my room and the room of eighth grade reading teacher Andrea Thomas at the end of the hall had suffered the most damage, primarily from the sprinklers, which had been activated.
It seemed silly in the midst of such devastation and destruction, at a time when at least 122 people had lost their lives, but I confessed to Terri Greene Sterling that the only things I worried about as far as my classroom was concerned, were the papers on the Writers' Wall of Fame, where the best work of my students is displayed each year, the older papers from my top writers of the past, which I display at the beginning of each year to give my new students examples of excellent writing, and my collection of books on the American civil rights movement, which students use each year when we do our third quarter research project.
None of those things really mattered, but I could not help thinking of them.
There was nothing to see from our vantage point outside of the building, so we walked to where our gymnasium once stood. The floor was still there, as was a fierce Joplin Eagle standing guard on the back wall, but the other walls had vanished.
I did not even want to think about the auditorium, which has been the pride and joy of East Middle School. How was I going to be able to gaze at the debris of a place where so many memorable moments had been packed into two short years?
It was the place where Lara Stamper and her drama students had staged the school's first ever musical, "Disney's The Aristocats," just a few weeks earlier, the place where concerts were performed in the last two weeks by Kylee Tripoli's orchestra, Nick Moore's band, and on the last performance ever given in the auditorium, just five days ago, Julie Yonkers' choir and the Joplin East Middle School Show Choir.
I thought about the two benefit shows we had staged to raise money for the school the past two Novembers, with performances from history teacher Rocky Biggers' group, the Victorymen, Stone's Throw Theatre's "Godspell" cast, Hannah and Tammy Cady, my band, the ironically named Natural Disaster, and scores of middle school and high school students.
It was apparent when I turned the corner- the auditorium was in ruins.
And then I saw the American flag, a source of pride in good and bad times, and an incredible thing of beauty when it stands proud in the center of such desolation. I remembered how that flag stood proud in the auditorium during our Veterans Day Assembly and our observance of 9-11. It is remarkable how much meaning such symbols have in times of despair.
There is nothing like the majesty of the American flag.
God willing, there will be a new East Middle School standing someday soon and the creation of new memories will begin.The EMS I had grown to love in its two short years of existence was no more, but the memories remain forever.