Special Reports

Joplin students return to school with lessons in resilience

Joplin High School students tried to log on to their donated laptop computers for the first time on Wednesday, the first day of classes at the 11th- and 12th-grade school in Northpark Mall.
Joplin High School students tried to log on to their donated laptop computers for the first time on Wednesday, the first day of classes at the 11th- and 12th-grade school in Northpark Mall. PHOTOS BY KEITH MYERS | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

JOPLIN, Mo. | Standing in her high school business classroom, teacher Kristi McGowen unloads a box of supplies. More pens and pencils, staplers and scissors than she’ll probably ever use.

Everything in this class is new, donated or bought to replace everything the storm took away. Tables and chairs for the students, two inspirational posters on the wall. A smart board doesn’t quite work yet, but one of the football coaches is working on that.

As McGowen stuffs one of her three metal drawers full with supplies, she glances down at her watch. It’s only 8 a.m. Wednesday. Her first class won’t be here for another 30 minutes. She’s anxious. Nervous, even.

Although she’s been teaching for 23 years, McGowen admits she has the jitters of a recent college grad. But, she reasons, this year is different. She’s different. So are her students.

What are the kids going to be like? she thinks. What are they going through? How are they coping?

It’s been nearly three months since an EF5 tornado destroyed one-third of Joplin, killing 160 people — including one school secretary and seven students — and injuring more than 900. Nine of the district’s 19 buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. The scars are still there; no way they couldn’t be.

Many teachers and students lost their homes, their churches and nearly everything they owned. Some lost family members. One senior, Quinton Anderson, lost both his parents and missed their funeral as he recovered in the hospital from his own injuries.

But on this day, it’s like a fresh start. A slate nearly as clean as the freshly painted walls and never-used white boards.

“We’ve been through a lot as a community; you’ve been through a lot,” high school principal Kerry Sachetta will tell a cafeteria full of juniors and seniors later at the new high school (built at the town’s shopping mall). “We need to remember that.”

But, he’ll tell them, don’t forget to celebrate how far Joplin has come since the sky went dark May 22. How far they’ve all come.

The good things, the positive signs of Joplin moving on, that’s what McGowen will stress when her first class comes in.

All she wants for this first day, really, is for her students to feel comfortable. To know that everyone’s behind them, pushing for them.

“I want them to know that everything is going to be OK.”

Many doubted the district could pull off school this year. Especially on time.

Some even laughed when Superintendent C.J. Huff said in late May that classes would start on time, that he and other district leaders would come up with the space and textbooks and classrooms and equipment that more than 4,000 students required. That somehow he and the others would make the district, with half its buildings destroyed or severely damaged, whole again.

Wednesday morning, Huff was proved right.

Just after 7:30 a.m., buses pulled up to elementary schools, letting out eager 6- and 7-year-olds. Parents snapped photos and Huff traveled to all 12 elementaries, posing with every kindergartner and wishing them luck in their education. Just as he’s done his three previous years in Joplin.

Last year, he posed with 606 kindergartners, the exact number he did on Wednesday.

And by 8:30, high school students scooted down new halls and fumbled with schedules, uncertain where their next class was. Freshmen and sophomores were in a district education center, now turned high school. Juniors and seniors settled in at the mall, where a line of waving senior citizens held “Joplin Eagles” signs as the students drove in.

“The whole community is excited we’re back in school,” said senior Danielle Campbell, 17.

Throughout the summer, construction crews and architects, volunteers and district faculty and staff put in countless hours so schools could open on time. They worked against a backdrop of demolished businesses, churches and homes.

“In 19 minutes, 14,000 were made homeless,” said Gov. Jay Nixon, who was in Joplin to greet high school students and help pass out computers. “The sense of loss here is profound. ... But today, to be here, to see what’s been accomplished, it’s an inspiration not only to the community but the whole world.”

Quinton Anderson got the first laptop. Was the first to shake the governor’s hand.

For his classmates, Quinton represents what the tornado took that Sunday night and how they’ve fought to come out stronger. The teen huddled in the hallway of his family’s one-story home three blocks from St. John’s hospital when the tornado hit. His parents, Sarah and William Anderson, were with him. Quinton’s last memory is something hard hitting his back.

He woke up in a Springfield hospital with a fractured skull, a shattered bone near his eye and his last three vertebrae shattered. Later, he would get a fungal infection in both legs.

A few days after the tornado, once his sister Grace found him, she told him they’d lost Mom and Dad. Their mother was the school secretary.

Alone at night in his hospital room, he would cry. But he never turned angry or resentful.

“I never thought, ‘Why me?’ ” Quinton said.

The way he sees it, his strong attitude is why he’s going to class this first day of school. In rehab, he pushed himself. Just as he used to for football, where he was a wide receiver. Even in the off season, he would work out and run every day.

In the hospital those 5½ weeks, he learned to walk again. Now you can hardly tell he has implants in his spine or skin grafts on both legs.

He can’t play football this year, but his teammates voted him one of the captains. He stands on the sidelines during practice, wearing his No. 6 Eagles jersey.

“There’s only one way to go in life and that’s forward,” he said. “If you don’t go forward, you’re just going to keep falling down again and again. ”

“My parents wouldn’t want that for me.”

The day’s almost over and McGowen is winding down.

She’s waited for this all summer. Wondered what it would be like to teach again. To see some of the kids she hadn’t since the storm.

In fourth hour, she looked out and saw Quinton. How far he’s come, she thought. Another hour, she watched as kids giggled as they tried to type faster than their classmates. And throughout the day she looked up at the framed royal blue T-shirt hanging on her wall.

Will Norton, a senior last year, designed the “Let’s Talk Business” shirt for Future Business Leaders of America. Norton was the life of her first hour. A bright light for the whole school.

She spoke at his funeral, grieving for a young man who was sucked out of his vehicle on the way home from graduation. The framed shirt is a quiet reminder of her student, and what was lost May 22.

McGowen didn’t want the day to be about the storm and it wasn’t. She never said the word “tornado.” Once, she referred to the good that came out of a “horrible situation,” but that was it.

And her students, none of them brought up the storm. No one said, I lost this or I miss that. They talked about how they loved to “see the old people” wave at them in the morning, or the fact that they got free school supplies. They talk about how strangers still want to help.

Yeah, McGowen thinks to herself. They know things are going to be OK.

The bell rings at 3:30. Seven hours and one day down. A whole school year to go.

McGowen’s happy. She visits with a new business teacher who wants to tell her about his day, and she gets a quick visit from Huff.

Boy, is he smiling. No major glitches all day. Buses ran on time and didn’t forget any students, even the ones who moved a county or two away and still needed transportation. No one snuck out to the mall’s food court, that they know of.

And more than 90 percent of the students came back — 7,000 of the district’s 7,700 from last year. Huff expects the number to rise next week.

What would he tell those doubters now, the ones who thought school couldn’t open on Aug. 17?

“I told you so,” he says, smiling.

As for McGowen, she never doubted. Always believe, she says.

Just like one of the inspirational posters she picked out, specifically for this year, that hangs across the room from the shirt Norton designed.

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

McGowen couldn’t have said it better.