By the time we left the Mercy Hospital area of Joplin, dusk had fallen. As we headed back to the hotel, we were struck once again by how shocking it was to feel like we were driving through a typical Midwestern town and then to suddenly feel thrust into a war zone. We wondered what it must be like for the people of Joplin as they faced this roller coaster of emotions every day as they drove through town. It didn't seem like something one would ever grow accustomed to.
As dark as it was, Rolando (Garza) suddenly said, "There it is." He recognized the sign in front of the remains of Joplin High School from news reports he had seen prior to our arrival in Joplin. The "J" and the "lin" were no longer visible. The "J" had been replaced with "H," and the "lin" now read "E," the sign transformed to the word that rang out throughout this city: HOPE High School. We made plans to visit this area of town early the next morning before reporting for duty with Assistant Principal Jason Weaver at East Middle School.
The next morning, we left the hotel and headed for HOPE High School. Words cannot accurately describe the area surrounding HOPE. The best way for me to explain it is to say that as we drove up to the area and got out of the van to walk around, I was reminded of countless pictures I have seen of Iraq and other war-torn countries...homes torn apart, trees stripped of their leaves and some of their limbs, an eerie silence we couldn't ignore. Here, there were no Mr. Robertsons around.
We walked up to the high school and stood in disbelief. How many children had walked the halls of this school in the days leading up to the tornado? When the teachers locked their doors and headed home May 22, who among them could have imagined they would never return to teach in those rooms? From the street, we could see books on the shelves of rooms fully exposed after the walls of the school were blown off. In the center of the destruction stood a steel flag pole that seemed to extend to the heavens. A small American flag hung at half-mast.
We had to leave so we could report to Jason Weaver, the assistant principal at East Middle School, at 9:00 for volunteer duty. There wasn't the usual chatter inside the van as we left Joplin High School. All of us had been deeply affected by what we had seen since arriving in Joplin, but our sorrow felt heavier as we left the high school. It felt personal, perhaps because all of The McAllen 7 members are high school teachers. We felt a very real connection to the students and the teachers whose lives had been changed forever just two months before.
East Middle School was deemed salvageable and will be re-built. For now, students will attend what two months prior to our visit was "four walls and a dirt floor" in Crossroads Industrial Park, according to Jason. It didn't seem possible. As he was telling us this, we were standing on commercial carpeting inside a comfortably air-conditioned building, maroon lockers lining the freshly constructed and painted off-white walls. (Jason told us the lockers had been rescued from the heavily damaged school, but we would never have guessed it. They looked new.) Outside the full-length windows in the front office, the American flag flew proudly. Inside, a carved eagle stood proudly.
(For years, beautiful trees surrounded the grounds of Joplin High School, The tornado ripped them from the ground, and the sight of the fallen trees added to the community's sorrow. Paul Norris, JROTC instructor at Joplin High School, came up with a way to save the trees. Tree sculptors Russell Ehart and Sylvia Cook brought their chainsaws to Joplin and began transforming the fallen trees into strong, dignified eagles, the district-wide mascot for Joplin Schools. News reports indicate that other woodcarvers decided to join in on the eagle-making effort.)
Back to East Middle School. We reported to Jason, wondering what momentous task he would give us that would truly make a difference for the school's students and teachers.
"All of you are teachers, right?" he asked. "Yes," we proudly answered, now even more certain that a very important job had been saved for us.
"I'm going to have you do something that many others seem to find difficult but that teachers just get," Jason said. "There are about 700 lockers here in the school. I'd like to have you re-set the combinations on all of them."
We set to work and quickly learned it's not as simple as we always thought. It isn't difficult, but it is tedious and time-consuming. We took our job seriously, turning the key, pushing the button, turning the knob, releasing the button, turning the knob again until we heard a click, and then trying the new combination. This process had to be followed on all 700-plus lockers in the school.
Linda (Babauta) and I had to take a break after about an hour to go to the administration building, which is now in the old Missouri Department of Transportation building. There, KRGV Channel 5's John Kittleman was meeting with Joplin Schools Superintendent Dr. C.J. Huff to deliver a check for nearly $24,000 donated by people from across the Rio Grande Valley in addition to two semis full of school supplies and a semi full of band instruments, which had already been delivered.
Linda and I joined John so we could deliver a handwritten note and a gift from McAllen ISD Superintendent Dr. James Ponce, along with other wonderful gifts from people in the Rio Grande Valley. Among the gifts were "Monica" angels for the families of the 12 children killed in the tornado. The tornado pulled one of them, Will Norton, from his vehicle as he and his father were driving home following Will's high school graduation ceremony that day.
We delivered the angels in a gift bag covered with butterflies. They were deeply moved by the angels, and when Melanie Dolloff, one of Dr. Huff's PR staff members, saw the bag, she was deeply moved. "We just released butterflies for those who lost their lives in the tornado," she told us.
Linda and I needed to get back to work at East, and we left the administration building with a new helper. John. He learned how to re-set lockers and jumped right in to help vacuum all of the carpeting as well.
We took a break for lunch and decided to drive over to North Park Mall where a former Shopko had been turned into a colorful, modern and high-tech school for Joplin High's juniors and seniors. (The school is now affectionately being called Shopko High. Freshmen and sophomores will attend school at Memorial Education Center.) We had the opportunity to meet the principal's secretary, Sherry Wilson. We stayed and talked to her for quite awhile. While we were there, Jim Dunne, another district PR person, arrived. He told us about a Teacher Appreciation Rally that would be held Monday morning and asked if we could help them get set up. We were devastated that we would not be in town to help. Mr. Dunne got choked up as he told us that the community had organized a parade to surprise the teachers. We could feel the community's love for its children and its teachers.
After lunch, we returned to East to vacuum, move furniture, put together shelving units, create an Excel spreadsheet of the lockers, re-organize storage rooms and wash tables. John worked right alongside us, resulting in a new name for our group: The McAllen 7 + 1.
We worked until seven that evening, and even then, we wanted to stay. Through the course of the day, we had come to realize that we had come to Joplin expecting to move mountains, and through a number of chores others might find mundane, we had truly made a difference for Jason and the children at East Middle School.
The McAllen 7 + 1 shared a wonderful meal together and then headed back to the hotel. The next morning, we journeyed just outside of Joplin to visit the beautiful and serene Grand Falls. Even there, someone had written in large black letters, "PRAY 4 JOMO" (Pray for Joplin, Missouri).
Before going to the airport, we stopped at one final area of devastation, the neighborhood surrounding South Middle School and Irving Elementary. By then, the crumbled homes and schools had taken a toll on us, and we felt a need to cling to the signs that had shown us the spirit of the people of Joplin throughout our weekend in the Midwest. American flags gallantly waving in even the most hard-hit areas. Messages like "PRESS ON" and "WE WILL BE OK" painted on heavily damaged homes. What I call the "Wall of Hope" on the side of a building in town, a free-hand mural obviously painted by several different artists intertwined with hope-filled messages from scores of people, including two of our group, Vivian (Tamez) and Daniel (Garcia). Mayor Woolston's words telling us you can't dig out of something like this without all of the people who had come to offer help. Dr. Huff's determination to re-build schools and the work of so many people to do just that in two short months so the children in Joplin could return to school August 17, as scheduled. Words of thanks on marquees across town. And the painted message at Grand Falls. All of these are signs of a resilient community where people work together to re-build both structures and people. They are signs of faith, unity and love. They are signs embedded in our minds and in our hearts. These are signs of HOPE.