Rising from the ashes
by TRACEY BARNES PRIESTLEY
ROOM 16 WENT UP IN SMOKE ON FEB. 22, a Saturday. It was the kind of fire that made the evening news, but only for one night. There were a couple of brief follow-up stories on the back pages of the local newspapers. And then the world went right on about its business.
But to all of those who belong to the world of Jacoby Creek Elementary School, the fire that destroyed Room 16 is a story that will long be remembered, in part because of the many people who responded so quickly, completely and selflessly.
Principal Eric Grantz arrived on the scene just 10 minutes after receiving the call notifying him that his school was on fire. I asked what his first thoughts had been as he surveyed the ravaged classroom. "I wondered how we were going to house these kids and maintain the integrity of the school program."
Grantz continued, giving credit where credit was due. "John Moore, our maintenance man, bus driver, gardener, deserves a tremendous amount of thanks. He's worked beyond the call of duty. There have been hundreds of little details to deal with. John has handled many of these and he's anticipated so much."
Moore, retired Navy, has been keeping Jacoby Creek School shipshape for 11 years. He's a good-natured, hardworking man. His first reaction to the destroyed building? "I immediately got some plywood to board up what was left of the building, to keep the kids safe." His work since that day has been non-stop, all part of his determination to "get this place back to normal." And, as Grantz pointed out, he is a detail man. I saw him deliver both an indoor plant and a brand new American flag to the new classroom.
Room 16 was Kirk Goddard's "home away from home." A social studies teacher at Jacoby Creek School for the last eight and a half years, Goddard taught a total of 60 seventh-graders and 49 eighth-graders in this portable. When he arrived at school the morning after the fire, Goddard was surprised to find so many people from the "school community" already there, each and every one of them ready to help. The school's phone tree, an efficient volunteer system of accurate communication, was activated so that misinformation could not, as Goddard said, "spread, pardon the pun, like wildfire."
When finally allowed inside his former classroom, Goddard was stunned. "My personal library, books, computers, desks, chairsthe carpet was melted, my family pictures, maps -- all gone." He showed me a photograph of one of his favorite classroom areas destroyed by the fire. "I travel vicariously through my students. I'm always asking them to send me postcards from their trips. This wall was covered with cards from all over the world, Africa, New York. The kids would always remember me."
But he seemed most concerned about what his students had lost. The fire occurred right before the annual "History Day" competition and many students were storing their projects in the room. "One of my students had family photographs on her exhibition, another girl had authentic garments displayed." The look on his face reflected the sadness he felt for the students' loss.
Yet this teacher, his kids and the entire "school community" were not about to be stopped by the fire. When the first bell of the morning rang on the Monday after the fire, plans were already underway for a new module to be delivered. By noon, Goddard had a new classroom in the library -- a solution that had been quickly assembled by the resourceful Grantz and Moore. It was a bit cramped. But the new class motto was: "We'll make the best of it!"
And they are. Already, Goddard has a new "No Whining" poster, courtesy of one of his students. His collection of weird items that somehow hit the funny bones of his kids -- Spam, Tuna Helper, barbecue sauce -- is once again growing. There are even a couple of new postcards.
As for replacing all of the educational supplies? Goddard explained: "I think it was that first Monday. After school, I walked into the Humboldt County [educational offices]. As soon as the staff saw my Jacoby Creek sweatshirt, they all came out from behind the counter and hugged me. `What can we do to help?' I left with enough materials to get us up and running again."
Goddard said people have been working non-stop. "Parents have been here around the clock. I've heard from current and past school board members. One mother brought in brownies, just to make us feel better. The community really came together, all cooperating and pitching in with whatever needed to be done. I even had a call from Wendy Day, the owner of Folie Douce restaurant, offering to help with a fund- raiser." (Day attended Jacoby school when she was a seventh- and eighth-grader, so her loyalty is understandable. But she's also a former teacher: "I know how schools are hurting. We all have to take care of our kids.")
Goddard, a sincere, likeable teacher, made one final point: "If there's one thing I'd really like you to include, it's to thank all of the people for their help and support."
On March 6, just 11 days after the fire, Goddard and his kids moved into their new module, all because, as Principal Grantz said, "So many people stepped up to the plate and delivered!"
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