In shattered Joplin, kids head back to class

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In the 12 weeks since the tornado ravaged Joplin, there’s been a time for everything: A time to look for the survivors, and then a time to look for the dead. A time to pile up the ruins of homes, and then a time to clear them away.

Now, on Wednesday, in one of the most emotional milestones on this city’s road back from a catastrophe that killed 160 and damaged or destroyed almost 8,000 homes and businesses, it’ll be time for thousands of the city’s kids to get back to school.

“Many families lost their homes, lost their jobs — but still have their mortgages — and they just want their kids to be in school,” said Jeremy Schamber, principal of Martin Luther Christian School.

Photos: Tornadoes in the Midwest

Martin Luther, partially damaged in the storm and still not fully repaired, served as a full-blown recovery center over the summer. Staff had to scramble this week to shift to accommodating students and teachers, some of whom lost everything.


Charlotte Robertson’s old home was directly in the path of the storm, five blocks away, and she and her husband survived by hiding in a hall closet with a mattress over their heads. Now living on the edge of town, she just got new dishes last week and still doesn’t have silverware yet. But all that — happily — doesn’t matter to her anymore.

“It doesn’t help to sit down and cry all the time, though I have done my share of that,” the second-grade teacher said Monday, cracking jokes as she zipped around her classroom, which had served as a food pantry and a counseling unit after the storm. She nodded toward a yellow wallboard decorated with her students’ names — Daniel, Gatlin, JoJo. They come first now.

The tornado damaged or destroyed 10 of Joplin’s 19 public schools. The Army Corps of Engineers finished clearing 1.45 million cubic yards of debris Aug. 6 — leaving stretches of prairie where thousands used to have their homes — but the old Joplin High School remains disemboweled and vacant, assignments still tacked to the remaining classroom walls.

After the May 22 tornado, officials decided the next school year would begin on time and moved quickly to make it happen. The new Joplin High School occupies what had been a vacant department store at the mall, next to Macy’s. One of the middle schools, also destroyed, has moved to a converted warehouse.

Thanks to a $500,000 donation from the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, every high school student will have a new laptop, a move that inspired a great wave of thanks — as well as a bit of head-scratching: We got a donation from where?

But some wounds don’t go away easily. Seven Joplin public school students and one staff member died in the tornado.

“I’m sad that we don’t actually have a real high school, but it’s nice to have a new facility,” said Aubrey Bokay, 16, an incoming junior at Joplin High School, as she toured the new campus.

She paused before adding, softly, a remembrance for Lantz Hare, a classmate killed in the storm. “It’s going to be weird coming to high school and not see Lantz every day, riding his skateboard outside.”

In the parking lot behind the high school sit rows of tornado shelters, each slightly smaller than a tractor-trailer. The boxy concrete structures look like mausoleums.

“That first tornado drill is going to be creepy,” said Mary Crane, a journalism advisor at the high school.

The complexities of navigating student trauma will be a struggle for many teachers. Mark Faszholz, a fourth-grade teacher at Martin Luther who searched for victims after the storm, has three students whose houses were destroyed.

“One of the kids who lost his home, I asked him about his summer,” Faszholz said Monday, drifting into thought as he sat in his classroom, which had served as a medical unit. “It was funny; he was reading this book and was halfway through it when the storm hit and he lost it. And that’s what he was upset about, that he couldn’t finish the book.

“Parents, teachers — they’re upset when they lose their car, their house, but it’s different for kids, you know?”

But it’s just an early step in the recovery process — both for the students and for their parents, who continue putting their city back together.

“Joplin has just amazed me,” said Sheila Bentlage, a school volunteer and Aubrey Bokay’s grandmother, who helped stuff free supplies in backpacks for Joplin’s 7,700 public school students. “Nobody sat back. Nobody shirked their duties and said, ‘Let somebody else do it.’ ”

She added, “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Photos: Tornadoes in the Midwest

Pearce writes for The Times.