Sunday, November 25, 2012

From Spirit of Hope: This Town is My Home

The following post is a chapter from Spirit of Hope: The Year After the Joplin Tornado. The author, Laela Zaidi, is a junior at Joplin High School. In 5:41: Stories from the Joplin Tornado, Kaylea Hutson wrote about Laela's family and its experiences during the May 22 tornado. In Spirit of Hope, Laela told her own story, starting on that day and detailing her experiences through the following year. Spirit of Hope is now available at Amazon for $19.99 and can be purchased through the advertisement on the right hand side of this page. A signing for both books is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, December 8, at Changing Hands Book Shop in Joplin.


            In the hours before the May 22nd tornado, I remember the afternoon being filled with laughter. The beautiful day was a reminder to my friends and I that summer was around the corner, just two weeks away. I anticipated it not only because of the freedom, but it was the summer after my first year in high school. My plans were to spend it with old friends and new and to play tennis for my upcoming fall season. It seemed as if nothing could bring me down; I was content with life.
            Of course, nothing could prepare me for what would happen hours later. The beautiful afternoon turned ugly as a massive EF-5 tornado tore the town apart and destroyed countless homes and businesses- including my home, three of my families homes, my dad’s office and the hospital which he worked at. My high school, which I also lived across the street from, was torn to pieces. A few days after the tornado, I climbed to the top of what was left of my home. Standing on a grey slab (what used to be my room) I looked over the damage. There was nothing in sight except endless debris, chewed up homes, and, in the distance, the shell of St. Johns. A realization came upon me; the unchanged life I had known for fifteen years in this town would never be the same.
            With nowhere left to go, twenty members of my family to look after, and the possibility of more tornados, my parents decided to move everyone to the MSSU Red Cross Shelter for a week. My sister, who lives in Chicago, came down and stayed with me at a friend’s. However, this situation couldn’t last forever. A quick decision was made that we would move to Monett, Missouri. This small town, just under an hour outside of Joplin, is where my mom commutes to work three times a week. With my dad out of work in town, it seemed like the only choice. My aunt and her three kids followed us there.
            Despite what had happened in Joplin on May 22nd, it never crossed my mind to actually leave. My house may have been gone, but this town has been my home for fifteen years. Once moving what little we had to Monett, this dawned on my parents as well. My dad signed up with Mercy St. John’s and we found a new house in Joplin. By August, we moved back in town. Nothing felt better than being reunited with my friends, seeing familiar faces, and being home. Of course, our new house still didn’t feel right, but at least I was back in a familiar place. The uncertainty of living in Monett made me feel homeless, lonely, and depressed. Despite the genuine sympathy from those I met there, nobody could relate or understand the emotional rollercoaster of losing your home, high school, and neighborhood in a natural disaster. After a summer spent in misery, I felt so much joy to be back where I should be. The support of friends, family, and familiarity of the town helped in getting back to some sense of normalcy, and it has been encouraging to watch businesses and homes spring up from the rubble.
            One aspect of life forever changed, one both individually affecting citizens of Joplin and collectively, is school. For two thousand students, the loss of our only public high school has changed the way most of us think of school spirit forever. The first home football game clearly proved this. Luckily, our off-campus football stadium was spared in the tornado’s path. The filled stands were vibrant in our school colors and nothing could bring the energy of the crowds down.
Because of the loss of our building, the high school was split into two campuses. One for 9/10th graders, at a building recently used as a middle school, and a modern, newly built campus in our mall for 11/12th graders. While both are “Joplin High School”, everyone can agree the high school experience in Joplin is definitely far from normal. In order to make up for the hundreds of textbooks lost, JHS as adopted “21st-Century Learning.” Every student has his or her own MacBook laptop, and most work is done electronically. Classroom projects are done through video editing, presentations, and various other technology outlets. To most people, this seems like a unique way to learn. In reality, the ability to focus on work and be productive has become near impossible. The quality of education hasn’t increased, and there is nothing healthy about spending seven hours a day on a computer screen. Being a lover of books, paper, and pens myself may leave me biased, but many students feel just as frustrated at times as I do. 
            Like any change, especially dramatic ones this year has seen, time and patience are needed for them to be broken in. The new learning strategy Joplin Schools has adopted has much room for improvement, and without older kids to look up to in the hallways (in a place where many of them recently went to middle school) the chance for freshmen to grow up and mature proves much more difficult. Despite all this, the chance to continue our education, on time, has been the greatest blessing. High school life is far from normal, but knowing our teachers and administrators are doing everything they can to make it the best it can be is the greatest comfort.
            While the May 22nd tornado robbed me of a summer and “normal” high school year, it also gave a once in a lifetime opportunity. During the summer, Tom Fey, director of tennis at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells , California, came down and saw the damage of the storm. After keeping close contact with the JHS Tennis Team’s head coach, Sean McWilliams, he made it possible for three boys and girls to attend and be ball kids at the BNP Paribas Open- the fifth largest professional tennis tournament in the world. The top 100 players from various countries are required to participate, giving us a chance to watch world-class tennis, and even be on court with top players- such as Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki, and more. What made the trip special was the fact all expenses were paid by donations and efforts of Tom Fey, Indian Wells Tennis Garden community, and the BNP Paribas Bank. Even celebrities are reaching out to our school. David Cook, American Idol winner and Missouri native, performed at our football homecoming (also giving me a chance to rush the stage and high five him!), and pop star Katy Perry is donating money, decorations, and dresses for the JHS Senior Prom. Opportunities such as these are reminders that the world still cares about what happened here on May 22nd, even months after the disaster.
            Throughout the year, the skeleton of JHS stood as a reminder of comforting memories; My history teacher’s closet where his students hung out and did homework, the classrooms, the teachers I said hello to everyday (some whom I don’t see anymore) are all things I still miss. Often, I revisit those places in my mind. One last time I walk the hallways, sit in the classrooms, and say my goodbyes. I venture across the street and one lay in the backyard of my beautiful three-story home. Sometimes I even drive past those places and vision those buildings still standing as they once did. Years from now, the old Joplin High School and the red brick, green mansard roof home of mine will be forgotten. But hopefully, there will be something bigger and better in their place. The land where my house once was will be a part of something that provides young adults an education and opportunities for generations to come. While these places leave me finding myself heartbroken today, one day I hope to look at them with pride in what my community has rebuilt in their place. Until then, the story of what took place on May 22nd will be told as one of resilience, human spirit, and what it truly means to not have a house, but rather a home shared with an entire community. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well written. Thanks for posting this, Randy.