Curbside at the ruined high school, my fingers hesitate at the door handle.
“It’s okay,” my grandmother, sitting beside me, says, “everyone else has been taking pictures.”
With a big inhale, camera in my hands, I’m out on the street, then in the grass, in my wedge-heeled sandals, stepping over gnarled strips of metal.I’m still holding my breath as I find the school in the camera’s lens, twisting to focus on its row of classrooms opened up like a smashed dollhouse.My shirt hem flaps in the wake of the traffic, and I want to announce, “Really, I’m here to help.It just doesn’t look like helping because I’m a writer and this is all I can do.” With my finger fumbling over the camera buttons, I snap five blind shots, hurry back to the driver’s side, and exhale behind the wheel.
Maybe I’m the worst person to do what I’m doing because I’m having trouble taking a simple picture to show you what I’m doing it for.I’m having trouble even telling you what I’m doing.I’ve started this story at least eight different times so far, and none of them began here.
At least one of them began here:
* * *
I drive into Joplin, Missouri from a nearby airport.Seven weeks after the massive F-5 tornado, the only indications along the periphery of the city that anything has happened here are the signs directing volunteers to the college and the excess of dump trucks hauling debris away from Range Line Road.The devastation registers slowly, piecemeal, a little at a time.The signs.The trucks.The insurance-company trailer in the grocery store parking lot.The glimpse through the arch of the train bridge over Connecticut Street of trees stripped down to jagged black lightning cracks low on the wide-open horizon.
The brick façade of my great-aunt’s house sits gaping somewhere in that stretch of ruins. She and her husband had run from room to room as the roof had peeled away over their heads, the open sky chasing them.Neighbors pulled them free and drove them to their daughter’s home in nearby Springfield.
On one side of the tracks, complete destruction.On the other, my grandparent’s home with its battered roof and uprooted trees.I don’t wait for them to answer the door when the lit doorbell chimes under my fingertip.I go right in, cross the living room to the kitchen, and hug my grandmother.
This is the other thing I don’t want to tell you because there are 159 who’ve died, 2000 businesses and homes destroyed, people who’ve lost everything, and here I am hugging my grandmother in a house left whole, right on the edge of devastation.
* * *
But the picture’s important, and this is important so I’m just going to come right out and say it or else you won’t know why I put on my nice slacks and sandals, pack my camera in its bag, and drive with my grandmother to meet with Joplin School officials.With the help of more than a dozen authors* and Simon Smithson, I’m putting together an ebook anthology to raise money for the Joplin Schools Tornado Relief Fund.I’m a writer, and this is all I can do.What I’m not is an extrovert or a publicist, but I’m learning.Sometimes, though, I’m a journalist, so I take my notebook scrawled with questions into a middle school on the north side of Joplin where some school offices have been temporarily relocated. Eight Joplin schools have been destroyed or severely damaged by the tornado, including the only high school.
At a library table, volunteer Melanie Dolloff tells me of how she recently came across a rolled-up length of butcher paper, the sort that teachers use for decorating bulletin boards, that had been covered in the days after the tornado with tally marks and notes regarding those individuals whom officials had been able to contact along with what they’d lost, who they’d lost.
“It was heartbreaking to see that,” Melanie says.
And now they’re calling again.
A little over half of Joplin children live in poverty, according to the Joplin Bright Futures organization established to help lower the drop-out rates.The challenges for Joplin Bright Futures and the Joplin Public Schools grew exponentially after the tornado.
“We are starting over,” Melanie tells me.“We are literally starting over.”
Melanie and others have been following up with faculty, staff, and students to help assess their needs and plan for the coming school year.
“There has been a lot of disruption in their lives,” Melanie says of the kids in particular.
She tells me of one student who’d lost her eye-glasses, another who’d lost her prescription medication.The little things you don’t think of until later.
“You see kids walking around in this rubble right now,” she says.“The playgrounds are gone.”
School, though, will be starting on schedule on August 17 in the temporary locations of the mall and other area buildings with a support system of counselors in place.She tells me that statistics show post-traumatic stress disorder begins to set in three months after a traumatic event.
“That’s one week after the start of school,” she adds.
I ask her what they’ll need.
Winter clothes and coats.Teaching materials.School supplies.After-school programs and extracurricular activities.“Those things the insurance checks alone can’t help rebuild,” Melanie says.
Melanie’s work with the Joplin Bright Futures organization has segued into work for the Joplin Schools Tornado Relief Fund created to meet some of those needs.I ask her how long the fund will be in place, how long will it take to rebuild.
“Years,” she says.“We don’t see the fund going away any time soon.”
My grandmother is watching us with her hands clasped and her mouth compressed in a straight line.
I say, “thank you so much for your time,” close my notebook, and then Melanie tells me we can allocate our donation for one of the extracurricular programs if we want.I’m not sure because I’m not really a fundraiser either and I have a photograph to take that I don’t feel comfortable taking.I tell her they can decide, and then I meet Danny Craven on my way out.
* * *
Here is another beginning:
With the doctor’s order for a chest x-ray folded in his pocket, my grandfather slowly lowers himself into his car and drives us to St. John’s Medical Center.Scrunched in the backseat, leaning against the door, I hold my iPhone near the glass to record for my parents what 26th Street between my grandparent’s house and St. John’s looks like now.This stretch is only two miles of the damage out of what the National Weather Service survey team has determined to be twenty-two miles of destruction.From start to finish, this is the view along the tornado path.Rubble and the eerie twisted forks of limb-stripped trees.
My grandfather steers into a lot for the temporary tent facility of St. John’s Mercy just across from what was once the medical center and hospital.
“You can see right through it now,” my grandmother points out.“You can see the sky on the other side.”
“What’s that?” my grandfather’s voice rumbles. The bass of it vibrates along his seat-back where my fingers rest on the turn.I think he must barely hear himself.I think the loudest of sounds must be a thin whistle of air to him, slipping past the way this landscape he’s known most all of his life shifts in the car windows, looking more like the World War II photographs he has of himself camping in a bomb-battered Philippines than home.
“The building,” grandmother says.
And he nods.He can see what she means.
With the order unfolded in his hands, he squints at one sign, then another, turning circles on the asphalt radiating the summer heat.Around us, bulldozers scrape along the ground in clouds of dust.Dust everywhere.All over Joplin.My grandmother had to get prescription drops for her eyes when they’d swollen up from working outside to clean the pulverized debris blown across her lawn, from working to revive the garden in the far corner.
A man in scrubs and disposable booties crosses the lot with his hand extended.“What can I help you find today?” he asks my grandfather.
My grandmother has to repeat it closer to his ear.
“The entrance,” my grandfather says with a nod, feeling the edges of his paper.
It’s an emergency room rather than a medical center, the tent facility.A woman sits bent forward and coughing into her fists in triage.I wonder if it’s the dust.
“I don’t understand why they sent him here,” I say to my grandmother once we’re seated in the waiting area, for an hour, watching Dr. Phil cut out on a television in the corner.
“Well,” she says, “they told him to go to St. John’s.’”
“But that was before the tornado destroyed it.”
She shrugs.“We didn’t know where else to go, I guess.”
* * *
Danny Craven is the station manager and director of the JET 14 program at Joplin High School.I know one thing about JET 14 as we sit down in Danny’s makeshift studio for the summer, an empty classroom with a laptop open on a desk.I know Will Norton was in this class, the boy who died in the tornado driving home from his high school graduation, the boy who was going to attend film school this fall.As I crack my black-bound notebook open again, I tell myself I’m not going to say what I’m about to say.
“I had the idea for the anthology before the tornado,” I begin.I tell Danny it’s called Writing Off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema.“And it didn’t occur to me to make it a fundraiser until I saw the stories about Will Norton and his passion for filmmaking while he was a student here.”
I stop myself and look up at the ceiling, trying not to cry.I’m really not that good at this.When I lower my gaze again I see the same strained expression on Danny’s face.
After a pause he tells me, “He was pretty special, pretty inspiring.”
I focus on writing that down, pen scratching at the paper.
“He came to us from a private school specifically for the T.V. program,” he says.
The program, he explains, is a series of elective courses in which students run the school’s television station aired locally.In the courses, they learn about camera techniques, lighting and sound, broadcasting, storyboarding and scripting, video production.Students in the class are encouraged to gravitate toward the aspects of film or television production that interest them the most.
“How much of the equipment were you able to salvage?” I ask.
He glances around the room when he says, “This is it.”
As it was, they didn’t have enough for the 160 students in the program.Now they have next to nothing.
When I walk out of the school arm in arm with my grandmother, I know at least one thing for sure.We’ll be allocating the anthology proceeds for JET 14.Then my grandmother helps me navigate through the nameless streets and numberless addresses between the broken trees to find the high school.I sit behind the driver’s seat, holding the camera to my chest.
“I don’t know, grandma,” I say.“I feel bad.”
“It’s okay,” she says.
* Many thanks to Thelma Adams, Robin Antalek, Sean Beaudoin, Ernessa T. Carter, Richard Cox, Elizabeth Eslami, Nathan Larson, Vernon Lott, Greg Olear, Neal Pollack, David Small, Teddy Wayne and others TBA soon.