Wednesday, May 08, 2013

From Spirit of Hope: We Will Have School

(I am rerunning this post from October 1, 2012,  because sometime within the next 24 hours, Spirit of Hope: The Year After the Joplin Tornado, will be available for the first time as an e-book. This post includes the chapter "We Will Have School.")

It did not come as a surprise when the Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA) selected Joplin Superintendent C. J. Huff as its superintendent of the year Saturday night.

Joplin Schools’ remarkable comeback from the EF-5 tornado that destroyed or severely damaged 10 school buildings inspired the nation. Buildings were found for all of the displaced students, with high school students in grades 11 and 12 attending school in a former anchor store building at a mall and students at East Middle School where I teach eighth grade communication arts (English) relocated to a warehouse building in an industrial park.

The tone for the Jopiln Schools’ remarkable comeback was set by Dr. Huff when he stunned the nation just a few days after the May 22, 2011, tornado by announcing that school would start on time.

I wrote about that declaration in a chapter of the recently-published book, Spirit of Hope: The Year After the Joplin Tornado. That chapter is reprinted below.

 “Which one is the superintendent?” a photographer for one of the cable networks asked the middle-aged woman standing a few feet from him.

She pointed at the man standing a few feet away from the makeshift podium that had been set up in front of the shattered remnants of what only two weeks before had been Joplin High School.

At first, the photographer didn’t believe her. School superintendents were older, distinguished gentlemen, wearing suits and fighting the effects that too many chicken dinners at too many educational seminars can create for the waistline.

These, however, were not ordinary times in Joplin, Missouri, and C. J. Huff was not an ordinary superintendent. Maybe he had been a couple of weeks before, in those blissful days before a tornado destroyed one-third of the city and damaged or destroyed 10 of his schools, including the one a few feet behind him. Normalcy was a thing of the past for Huff and it would be a long time before it would ever return.

A brisk wind whipped through the gathering crowd as they waited for the superintendent to speak. This was the first meeting of school district personnel since the tornado- a family reunion of sorts, and the audience was filled with the same dreadful fears that had taken hold of their lives since 5:41 p.m. on May 22.

Had their colleagues survived? Were the students who had sat in the classrooms a few days before ever going to have a chance to move on to the next grade, or to grow to adulthood?

They also had to worry about their jobs. It was almost a certainty that there would be fewer students whenever school started again. Would there be the need for as many teachers, as many secretarial staff, as many custodians? Was there a possibility that this gathering might be the last time they would ever see each other as co-workers and colleagues?

As the photographer took a closer look at C. J. Huff, his earlier doubts had been erased. Though he had cast aside the suit and tie in favor of a maroon baseball cap with a proud “J” for Joplin and looked more like a Sunday golfer than a community leader, it was clear that this was the man in charge.

The face was boyish, something that had concerned some Joplin School District patrons when Huff had been hired. Ironically, the May 2008 board meeting when Huff had first been introduced to the public had been interrupted by the sounding of a tornado siren. Outwardly, the superintendent looked the same, but a closer examination showed the stress of having to deal with a crisis few school administrators had ever faced, the slight redness in eyes that had not been closed many times since the tornado.

Huff and his staff had been at the biggest event of the 2010-2011 school year, the culmination of 13 years of schooling, the high school graduation, held at Missouri Southern State University, when the tornado sirens sounded.

It seemed like an eternity had passed. In the days since, school officials and teachers had mounted an unceasing effort to locate every employee and every student in the school district.

It was no easy task. Phone service was down in many areas. Those whose homes had been hit by the tornado were staying in hotels or with relatives, some out of state.

It was a task made easier due to the advent of social networking. Through Facebook, teachers were able to locate many students.

But even with that technological marvel, district employees who had reported to work the day after the tornado, did much of the work by going door-to-door in the devastated areas of the city, marking as many names off the list as they could.

And there were other concerns. The administrative office building had been hit by the tornado. The team had to spread to different buildings and somehow manage to coordinate its duties. After some trial and error, the team had established a working rhythm.

Its ability to do so was aided by the members of the Board of Education. In a meeting, two days after the tornado, Huff told them, “We are going to start school on time.”

Their reaction to that seemingly impossible goal did not surprise the superintendent. “They didn’t question the decision. They got out in front and took care of business,” Huff said.

“These folks on a normal day work long, hard hours at the job and deal with patron calls about everything from overcooked chicken nuggets to angry cheerleader moms.”

The board also included a board member who had lost her home. “They were all affected by the tornado.”

Despite all of this, the board never hesitated to do what needed to be done.  “They knew getting our kids back to school and out of the rubble was the best thing we could do for our community,” Huff said.

The first order of business was to give Huff and his staff the ability to do what needed to be done without having to call a school board meeting for approval every day. They approved a Missouri School Boards Association policy granting authority to Huff to make emergency purchasing decisions without board approval.

At the same time as the hunt for staff and students continued, Huff and his team were making arrangements for temporary buildings that could house the students when the 2011-2012 school year began, a task made all that much more daunting by the fact that school was scheduled to start just 87 days after the tornado.

And now on Memorial Day, May 30, 2011, just eight days after the tornado, Huff prepared to address the “family gathering.”

The crowd quieted as a man stepped to the microphone and said, “How about a great hand for our superintendent of schools, C. J. Huff?”

As the crowd applauded, Huff adjusted the microphone and wiped sweat from his forehead.
“First of all, it’s good to see the family here. I miss you guys. I want to thank you for making the time to join your Joplin Schools family today as we celebrate life in the midst of destruction.”

“Memorial Day is set aside to honor those who have given their lives to defend those principles we hold most dear. I was thinking about this last night and the parallels to our situation are striking. Our soldiers don’t choose the battles they fight. They suit up, show up, and do their jobs. We didn’t sign up for this war either. But true to form, in the past week you have pulled together as a family, supporting one another through prayer, words of encouragement, volunteerism, and action. No task was more daunting than our primary mission following the tornado last Sunday evening- the mission- locate and account for all of our family members.”

At that point, Huff’s voice began to falter and tears streaked down his face. He took a few seconds to collect himself as he prepared to deliver the most difficult portion of the most difficult speech of his life.
“At 3:16 last Friday, I received a text message-“ he stopped again, took a deep breath.

‘Are you all right?” someone asked, the question picked up by the microphone.

Huff nodded and continued his sentence,  “that indicated that mission was complete. As a result of your diligence and unwavering fortitude in the face of insurmountable challenges, 100 percent of our family are accounted for.”

The hoops, hollers, and applause began, but the news was not as positive as Huff’s words indicated. All of the family members had been accounted for, but not all of them had survived the tornado.

“I personally believe that all things happen for a reason,” Huff continued. “I believe in God and I believe 3:16 last Friday had significance for all of us. It was a great moment of relief for our family, but more significantly, I believe there were biblical implications, as well.

“John 3:16 says this- For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.”

Huff paused, took a deep breath and collected himself once more. Many in the crowd, understanding the words that would come next, were also fighting tears, some unsuccessfully.

“Today, we grieve the loss of eight members of our family. We lost seven children and one educator. Today, we celebrate that we are all together again in body and in eternal spirit. Please join me in a moment of silence to honor the family members who are no longer with us.”

After the moment of silence, Huff began what he knew would be the most important part of his speech.

With all of the death and destruction that had hit Joplin eight days earlier, with all of the school buildings that were damaged and destroyed, Huff had to point his family toward the goal that would pull them all together- the goal that became a rallying cry for the community that sounded across the nation.

It would have been easy to use the tornado as an excuse for canceling summer school and delaying the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year. Not one person would have questioned that decision had it been made.

Huff, his team, and the Joplin Board of Education never considered any option other than full speed ahead.

“Schools are at the heart of every community,” Huff continued. “It’s where we go to learn, to be inspired and discover and cultivate those qualities that eventually evolve into our careers, so it is only fitting that our schools are not only an essential part of our recovery, but are helping to lead the charge, working in concert with city, state, and federal officials and we will recover and come back stronger than ever.

“One week and one day ago, we were celebrating graduation and preparing for a flurry of parties and other activities. Today, we find ourselves on the back end of a natural disaster that brought more chaos and havoc than we have ever seen before in our lives.

“Our loss has been great. We must never forget those who died in this battle. And today, we celebrate their lives, and their hopes and dreams. We honor their memories by moving forward, rebuilding, and continuing to take care of one another as a family.

“Taking care of family means being your advocate and helping you make it through this crisis. Several of you have inquired if you still have jobs. Let me assure you, we need you now more than ever.  It may seem chaotic until we get all of our buildings rebuilt and restored and you might find classes meeting in locations you haven’t expected…but we will have school,” Huff said, emphasizing each of those last four words.

The news, unexpected to many in the crowd, that somehow, despite all odds, the goal was to start school on time, without a single day of delay, was greeted with thunderous applause.

Thanks to the cameras from the local television stations, as well as those from the networks, and those videoing it to place it on YouTube, C. J. Huff’s words became a rallying cry, not only for the school, but for the city of Joplin. The work that went into making those words a reality made the city and the school district the symbol for a nation.

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