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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.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

49 responses to “Starting Over”

  1. a. dickinson says:

    Cindy, I’m very glad your family made it through the storm. I also have family that survived but lost everything, the tornado hit just as my 6 yr old 2nd cousins birthday party was wrapping up. It was a horrible night as I sat in my basement cell phone, landline, radio, & laptop trying to make sure everyone was okay. You did a beautiful job telling the story. It took me weeks to get the nerve to go see it for myself. It’s hard to comprehend the suffering but it does continue. The national news stations spend a few days telling the story but this is still happening. People lost their families, homes, jobs, schools and history. I am so proud to know you and thank you for using your gift to help.

    • Thanks so much, A! I know what you mean — I was down to listening to the police scanner online that night to find out if anyone had been to my grandparent’s street. That’s something I never want to do again. I remember you mentioning your cousin. I hope they’ve found a place to stay and are hanging in there.

  2. Matt says:

    Wonderful idea to turn the anthology into a fundraiser, Cynthia. I only regret that I wasn’t able to get my act together in time to contribute.

    I think we as human beings are bound to feel inadequate when faced with the sheer destruction of a natural disaster, regardless of whatever means to help we have at our disposal. Photographic documentation doesn’t feel like enough. Writing down the firsthand accounts of survivors doesn’t seem like enough. Serving out hot meals never seems enough. Clearing rubble with a bulldozer so people can rebuild just doesn’t seem like enough.

    Despite the destruction, I’m glad your family made it through. Edifices can be replaced; people can’t.

  3. Art Edwards says:

    Lovely work, great cause, and I’m so glad there’s something we can do about it.

  4. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I can relate to how you felt holdling that camera.

    Hurricane Katrina hit two weeks before my first novel was released. Although I didn’t live in New Orleans, our city did have hurricane damage and was one of the places that gave shelter to thousands fleeing the city. I had no time to process or mourn because I had a book tour scheduled. As I traveled, I was an unexpected envoy from Louisiana. I was asked questions that spanned from sincere to stupid, and I did my best to represent, to explain in only a few words the complicated reasons people stayed or couldn’t leave.

    When I went to New Orleans three months after the storm, the destruction made me so sad…the buildings…the beautiful live oaks on St. Charles Ave. (and everywhere else) letting in too much light because their branches and leaves had been stripped away.

    Your project matters because you’re doing it out of love. Beautiful and unexpected things will come from that.

    • Thank you lovely Ronlyn! What a gem you are. My grandmother was particularly upset about all of the trees. She told me there’s a group that will be going around determining which ones will still make it and taking down all the rest. Letting in too much light, exactly! And letting you see further down the streets than you could have two months ago. Very strange.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    Dear Cynthia,
    It’s just heartbreaking, isn’t it?
    I relate very well to the picture taking. When I was walking out of my ruined city, I took a couple of snaps on my phone of crushed buildings. I don’t know why I did it – I think I thought I SHOULD. Being an ex journalist, always looking for the story, knowing I was an eye witness to history blah blah, but I felt terrible. I realised there were people dying in that pancaked building and I felt like the worst kind of vulture. I didn’t take another picture.
    I think it’s fantastic you are fundraising in this way. What a great thing to do. The truly awful thing about disasters like this is that long after the news cameras have moved along the destruction remains.
    Lovely piece.
    Z

    • That’s true, or they come back for anniversaries or something. I did just see an article, though, on the aftershocks that keep happening in Christchurch. Poor Christchurch! I was thinking as I was writing and rewriting and scrapping and rewriting this that I hoped I could tell this story with something of your tremendous grace, lovely Zara! Thanks!

  6. A tough visit for you to make. Thanks for telling us about it.

  7. Such beauty wrought from heartbreak. Thanks so much, Cynthia.

  8. Quenby Moone says:

    I love this and thank you. Will share and pass it on.

  9. New Orleans Lady says:

    Cynthia,

    You did a wonderful job telling your story, I know how difficult it must have been. I still have not been able to write about Katrina. I just can’t. Even pieces I began about the BP Oil Spill turned out to be million tiny thoughts, fits of anger, and extreme sadness all jumbled together. You gave us a glimpse into a world of chaos but told it with grace and compassion. Be proud. Also, I love that you stepped up and decided to do something to change the world around you. Sometimes it’s easier to let others deal with the mess and whine about it but it takes special people like you to act in situations like these. You are a blessing.

    Again, great post and good luck.

    -Ashley

    • That’s so very nice of you to say! I will endeavor to deserve that complement.

      One of the contributors to the anthology, David Small, actually inspired me with something he says in his piece. He’s written a graphic memoir about some very difficult times for him, and he intentionally revised to pare down the emotion and the anger and so forth. I’m not even half as good at doing so as he is, but once I told myself to just focus on presenting the images and facts it helped. Anyway, that’s more than you wanted to know, I’m sure, but a little nod to David Small’s infinite wisdom.

      Thanks so much Ashley!

  10. That’s a really wonderful idea.

    A while ago I did a bit of anthology editing, but with a (not so successful) commercial bent. Several people approached me back then with ideas for anthologies they’d like to see…often people who’d suffered something and just couldn’t find out how others dealt with it. It made me think the form could be used healing–a way for writers and others to bear witness and build community.

    Best of luck with it! Look forward to hearing about the progress.

  11. Cynthia, honey, you write w/ such detail and ache and along w/ everyone, I wish you didn’t have to write it. That the tornado hadn’t hit and that the 22 miles (dear god) were intact as before. What you’re doing in the aftermath of such devastation is deeply compassionate. When you note you’re not “good” at certain aspects, well, no one is. You’re doing so well under the circumstances. If you were blithely unaffected by this, you’d be among the dead, essentially. Best of luck to you and Simon and as you and I have discussed privately, I’ll definitely pitch the anthology to my proper editors and hope they bite. The project deserves ample attention and I hope it raises ample funds, too. Oh, Cynthia. You’re a champ, lady.

  12. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Cynthia,

    The difficulty you so honestly expressed even beginning to tell the story speaks volumes more than any pat bit of journalistic slickness. Thanks for taking us there in many ways, including with that devastating video. I know it was hard to document what you saw, but we learn from you the scale of the suffering in a visceral way that no news story can really capture. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  13. James D. Irwin says:

    It seems my comment never made it. I’m glad I checked because I don’t want this post to disappear without expressing how beautiful it was.

    Generally I’m not good at commenting on serious pieces, so I’ll leave it at that.

  14. Irene Zion says:

    Cynthia,
    A terrible tale, but a good job in the telling.
    Glad your family’s okay. I’d rather not hear the names of those who aren’t.

  15. Cynthia,

    This piece is a graceful, tasteful, compassionate telling of a sad tale. Thank you. Please keep us posted about the progress of the fundraising project. xoxo.

  16. Jessica Blau says:

    Cynthia,
    You are a wonderful and great person. I’m so glad you and Simon are doing the anthology and I’m so glad your grandparents are okay.
    xx

    • Oh gosh, thanks Jessica. I can aspire to be, anyway! I do know that Melanie and Danny are both terrific models for how to be truly great and wonderful in a crisis. It was a pleasure to have met them and to hear about all that they’re doing for the kids there.

      By the way, just in case anyone’s reading who knows a celebrity or two, Melanie has been trying to round up celebrities who could film a quick message of support to show the Joplin faculty on their first day back.

  17. Seth Pollins says:

    Cynthia,

    Through my job at Whole Foods Market, I work with a JET 14-like program at my local high school (my alma mater, actually). What surprises me is how the students enjoy, first and foremost, working with the cameras, editing–“the aspects of film or television production that interest them the most.” I suppose I had assumed that all the younger people would just want to be in front of the camera–not in production. I know I was like that.

    Anyway, Cynthia, this is great work you’re doing. Without the appropriate equipment, some of these kids might never have the opportunity to discover their passion.

    I had wanted to submit to your anthology–I’m sorry I did not! I simply haven’t had the time to craft something that I’d feel happy about submitting.

    I’m sure the anthology will be a great success.

    • Thanks Seth. I hope so.

      Those sorts of electives can make such a big difference for a student. Case in point: I went to Joplin High School for a short time, and I was in their terrific journalism class.

  18. jmblaine says:

    Cynthia Hawkins,

    you introverted
    non-publicity person.

    you pulled this off
    so perfect,
    placement & tone,
    like dancing
    where those watching say:

    “lighter than air…”

  19. Reno Romero says:

    Beautiful, sad write. Great storytelling.

  20. Gloria says:

    I’m lord, Cynthia. I’m a bawling, blubbering mess. I love what you’re doing for the school. I’m so sad. You’re a beautiful writer. You made this so perfectly and painfully real. Thank you for this.

  21. Joe Daly says:

    CH-

    This is a truly courageous piece, not necessarily because of the fear and self-consciousness you had to overcome to get the pictures and to create the piece, but because of the candor and truth in the way you present your feelings. I take tremendous comfort in knowing that to capture a tragedy like this, one need not set aside empathy and compassion and turn it into a cold, professional transaction. I’m grateful that I am able to experience this tragedy through your eyes and words.

    Rock on, CH.

  22. Gregory Messina says:

    After a piece like this, I prefer to not say anything because really, there’s nothing to say. But this was very touching. Thanks for sharing, Cynthia.

  23. Excellent and affecting piece, Cynthia. Very glad to be a little part of this.

  24. Elizabeth says:

    I think this is a wonderfully brave piece, but more importantly, I think that you are a wonderfully brave writer, sometime journalist, and future extrovert and publicist.

    And like Sean, I’m grateful to be a little part of this.

    • Thanks so much Liz. I get all gushy at the thought of all of the wonderful people, like yourself, who’ve enthusiastically stayed on board with the project after it took its turn toward benefiting a good cause. I can’t wait to share your beautiful essay with everyone!

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