Joplin, Mo. students return to school 3 months after tornado

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.

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