We came to Joplin completely prepared to move mountains. We arrived at East Middle School at 9:00, ready to do just that. About 60 percent of East Middle School's students qualify for free/reduced lunch. Funny how I never thought of Joplin as having such a high number of children from low-income families. About 55 percent of EMS' students' homes were destroyed by the tornado. They're still not exactly sure how many of their students will show up for school Wednesday...how many will return.
In just 55 days, the people of Joplin, with the help of volunteers from near and far, transformed an empty shell into a facility that looks like it was meant to be a school. Assistant Principal Jason Weaver told us, "Two months ago, this was a building with four walls and a dirt floor." We stood before him, stunned, as we looked down the carpeted hallways, lined with shiny maroon lockers and leading to classrooms with brand new furniture. As I said earlier, we came to Joplin knowing we would move mountains. So we showed up for our assignment at East Middle School at 9:00. Mr Weaver, in his first year as assistant principal, said, "Oh, you're the group of teachers. I know exactly what I want you to do. This may sound strange, but many people don't know how to open a locker. Teachers know how to open a locker. I'd like your group to change the combinations on all of the lockers."
Was he serious? Lockers? We soon learned that changing locker combinations isn't as simple as we had always thought. It is a very time-consuming task. First you have to insert a small key into the lock. Then you set the combination to zero. You open the locker and press a little button on the inside while using your other hand to move the combination to 48. Then you release the button and move the combination to the right until it clicks. That click verifies that the old combination will no longer work, and the new combination will. But you're not done. You then have to verify that the new combination works, and if it doesn't, you have to try it again until you get it right. I think Mr. Weaver said there were 700 lockers for us to check. I know I wasn't alone in thinking, "What happened to those mountains we were supposed to move?"
As the day progressed, we completed our task and then asked Mr. Weaver what else he wanted us to do. We washed tables in the cafeteria, moved furniture, put shelving together, vacuumed (and vacuumed and vacuumed) and performed whatever other tasks Mr. Weaver needed done so that the students, teachers and administrators at East Middle School would be a little bit closer to being ready for the new school year.
About mid-way through the day, as I looked at the other six members of "The McAllen 7" and John Kittleman (general manager of KRGV TV, who came to Joplin to deliver a check for almost $24,000 that the people of the Rio Grande Valley donated for the Joplin Schools and who worked right alongside us throughout the day), it suddenly dawned on me. Sometimes the seemingly minute, tedious chores can be so much more powerful than moving mountains.
We have so much more to tell you, so stay tuned..
Good night from Joplin.