JOPLIN, Mo. – The trophy case by the front entrance is nearly empty. Classroom walls are largely bare, and unopened boxes of textbooks, computer monitors and other equipment remain scattered throughout the building.
Signs of unfinished business remain at what is now Joplin High's upper-level campus — a converted big-box retail store at the city's mall, well outside the worst-hit areas from a late May tornado that killed 160 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed thousands of buildings, including the city's only public high school.
On Wednesday, as Joplin students and teachers went back to school less than three months after country's single deadliest tornado in six decades cut the previous school year short, no one seemed to mind the shortcomings.
After months of hauling debris, attending friends' funerals, watching endless TV images of their destroyed school and trying to put their lives back together, it was finally time to get back to what passes for normal in Joplin.
You can't pretend like nothing happened," said English teacher Brenda White." But everything is so new here. Every single thing that is this school is new and different.
"It's going to take a while to build everything back, but books are a good start," she said while stocking her classrooms with copies of The Great Gatsby, The Kite Runner and other literary staples, past and present.
The school system was hit especially hard by the May 22 tornado. Seven students and one employee were among the victims, including a senior pulled from his car by vicious winds on his way home from Joplin High's Sunday afternoon graduation ceremony. Six school buildings were destroyed, including Joplin High. Seven other buildings were badly damaged.
School district leaders quickly realized that they would play an outsized role in Joplin's recovery, for reasons symbolic as much as practical. They expanded the hours and locations of summer school, well aware that the community's children needed a reassuring routine — and their parents the time to deal with insurance agents, contractors and social service agencies.
They cobbled together a hodge-podge of temporary locations for fall classes, from the old Shopko store at Northpark Mall to the recently-vacated Missouri Department of Transportation district office where the superintendent and other administrators now work. Rival elementary schools combined, and a middle school found space in an industrial park.
Even in a corner of the country where hard work is cherished, the swiftness of the transformation was striking, White said.
"I've always known people are strong here. But this has really brought it home," she said. "People are so strong. They just get up, dust off and go to work. That's what we do here."
Students arrived at the "mall school" Wednesday morning to a bevy of well-wishers holding Joplin High signs and lining the entrance road. Some met in modular classrooms, right next to a row of concrete-lined storm shelters. Others lingered in the hallways, reuniting with old friends.
They raved about the school's college-like feel, complete with Joplin Joe's coffee bar and free laptops for each student thanks to a donation from the United Arab Emirates worth as much as $1 million.
Count their parents and adult relatives among the most impressed by the transformation.
"It just blows your mind," said Pamela Berry, who accompanied her 17-year-old nephew to a Tuesday night open house. "I want to come back to high school."
School officials also brought in additional counselors and trauma workers to help students and families who may still be struggling with the storm's aftermath.
"We can build buildings, but the emotional damage that this storm has caused is of a very significant concern and something we're going to be watching closely for months, if not years," Superintendent C.J. Huff said
Phillip Gloyer, a communication arts teacher who is also a National Guard chaplain, said he plans to tap his divinity school training as well as his expertise in British literature.
"I'm just really focused on the kids' emotional health," he said. "A lot of hugs, a lot of encouragement. Asking them to tell their story. That's the best therapy."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier