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One of the Joplin public school buildings that was destroyed by last year’s EF5 tornado was Irving Elementary, a building that had been in place since the 1920’s. This past school year, the teachers and students from Irving spent their days at a different building and expect to be there for another year or so while a new Irving Elementary is being built. Shelly Tartar taught 3rd grade this past year and says her students did talk about the tornado and expressed anxiety about what had happened.
“At the beginning of the year, it did come up, especially at 10am Monday when we had the tornado siren go off for the city. You could feel the tension in the room. We’d just have to stop and talk about it. There were times when we were working and a kid would get upset. We might just stop everything and have a class meeting, talk about our feelings and how we can help each other get through it.”
Shelly Tarter says there were times this school year when she expressed her own emotions openly. She says she and her students comforted each other.
“If they see I’m upset, cause I get upset too, they’re always patting me on the back, giving me hugs, and saying it’s going to be ok. I think they need to see that. They need to see how I’m responding to things and letting my emotions show. I think that’s a wonderful lesson for them.”
Some of Irving’s students lost homes, and while some families have moved back in to permanent residences, others still live in FEMA trailers. Susan Moore teaches kindergarten at the displaced Irving Elementary. She says even her very young students spent much of the year focused on the tornado.
“We publish a book every year in kindergarten. This year, my kids did want to write about the tornado. Usually, we write about, if you had a little brother or sister, what would you tell them about kindergarten. This year they wanted to write about the tornado and how they knew they would be ok: They were able to hug their parents, they’re still able to go to school, some of them their house was ok. I was very surprised by their responses and so proud of them. The book when I got it, I read it and cried the whole time I read. My kids laughed at me and said, ‘It’s ok!’ They took it much better than I did.”
The ability of children to process a tragedy and move forward even in the face of unspeakable destruction was evident in Shelly Tarter’s third grade class as well.
“Kids are really good at bouncing back. They’re very resilient. They seem to deal with their emotions sometimes a little bit better, let them out where adults tend to keep them in and harbor those feelings til they build up and we let them go. It seems like kids want to talk about it and get it out. They’re not hesitant about doing that.”
Besides dealing with the emotional challenges this year brought, many teachers in Joplin lost their classroom supplies in the tornado. Kindergarten teacher Susan Moore says her biggest loss in the tornado was books that she had stored in the classroom. But she says she received help from complete strangers.
“I had a girl from Texas who was a kindergarten and 1st grade teacher contact me and said, ‘We’ve been there. We had a hurricane destroy our school. We’re packing our car and we’re on our way to see you.’ I had a teacher from New Orleans who had been through a hurricane, she had lost everything. She called and said she’s on her way. She brought everything I could possibly need. Through the district, we had an adopt-a-classroom program and I had several people help that way.”
Susan Moore says she was overwhelmed by the support.
“My husband said he knew teachers stuck together, but kindergarten teachers take it to another level. One of these days, we’ll pay it forward. We’ll be the ones packing the car.”
It’s that sense of gratitude, of hope, of moving forward that has marked this school year for many teachers, students, and administrators in the district. Those sentiments were expressed clearly in one of the songs the high school choir sang at graduation Monday night.