Out of the Ashes

On the first day of the winter break, my granddaughters’ school was gutted by fire. It started in the middle of the night, and by the time firefighters reached the scene, the hundred-year-old heritage building was well ablaze. Whoever set this fire – and it was certainly arson, with three separate ignition points – not only destroyed a lovely old building, but also tore the heart out of a community.

Teachers lost priceless resources. Students lost art work, stories and projects. In the principal’s office was heritage material collected for a centenary display – all gone. Student records, sporting equipment, musical instruments, photographs and archives showing the long and proud history of the school – all lost. Air conditioning units  and other infrastructure, much of it acquired through years of community fund raising – destroyed. Remarkably, the books in the school library survived.

So there we were, with only two weeks until the new school term, and nowhere for our 400 students to go. What could be done? On the morning after the fire, the principal called a crisis meeting, at which shocked and weeping parents and teachers attempted to comfort one another and come to terms with the loss. For a teacher, losing your classroom and all its contents is a bit like losing your home; it is no easy thing to set such a loss aside and get straight back to work. Parents, too, were stunned. This school had been the venue for many wonderful community events, and had a highly active and involved parent body.

The principal, in tears himself, vowed that the school would be rebuilt, and reminded people that while a building could be destroyed, the school community lived on, as strong as ever. As for the immediate future, it would depend on what could be achieved in the scant two weeks available. Perhaps the students would have to be split up and placed in different venues. It was clear the old school would require a complete rebuild. People left the meeting still shocked and sad, but heartened by the words of hope. At home, parents struggled to find the right way to explain what had happened to their children.

If the mindless act of arson dented our faith in the goodness of human nature, what happened next restored it.

The principal and teachers, along with most of the parents, worked almost non-stop during what should have been their break; teachers cancelled overseas holidays to be part of the effort. The local High School offered a sporting field large enough to accommodate the entire primary school for up to two years. The Education Department provided 20 transportable classrooms and all the other essential resources. An army of tradespeople descended on the site. Buildings were erected, plumbing and electrical fitting was done, concrete was poured to make paths and ramps, turf was laid out so the classrooms could stand around a lovely lawn, not a sandy building site. Meanwhile teachers and parents scrambled to get everything organised for the first day of term, right down to arranging where sporting teams could practise after school and where parents could safely park for dropoff and pickup. Student and teacher resources were provided by the authorities; many other items, including a piano, were donated by the community.

Two weeks and one day after the fire, the temporary school opened, and the principal stood at the gate to welcome every one of those 400 students by name.  The atmosphere was bright, cheerful and welcoming; students were full of energy and quick to point out the good things about the new setup, including supervised play time at a lovely public park just over the road. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the burned-out school stands as a reminder of what has been lost. It will be completely rebuilt in time for the 2014 school year.

There is still a lot of grief. The teachers, in particular, will find it hard to get over the loss of precious personal records and classrooms in which some of them had taught for years. As the school term progresses and the euphoria of the new start dies down, parents and students will start to realise how much really has been lost. But as the school principal said only a few hours after the fire, you can destroy a school, but you can’t destroy the community. The spirit that made this such a wonderful school showed itself with true magnificence during those two weeks of back-breaking work and remarkable positive thinking.

In a recent blog Barbara O’ Neal wrote about the Colorado fire and how such powerful experiences have an impact on our writing, whether it’s directly or indirectly. I don’t intend to write fiction about this school fire, but I recognise in the account I have just set out for you all the elements of a satisfying story: a dramatic inciting incident, a call to action with a tight time frame, a leader stepping up, a series of near-impossible challenges and, at the end, a triumphant conclusion (tinged with lingering sadness.) The story has the power of a fairy tale, with human qualities of courage, friendship and hope very much to the fore, as well as a wicked act of thoughtless destruction. We are surrounded by such stories. How odd that readers keep asking us where we get our ideas from.

© Duncan Noakes | Dreamstime.com


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    I knew about the fire, but I had no idea of the extent the community pulled together to set up a temporary learning area for the children.

    I wish I had known more about what they were doing over the holidays – it would have felt good to help.

  2. says

    What an inspiring story, Juliet! I was thoroughly touched by this and found myself tearing up at points. I used to be a teacher, so I understand the utter devastation they must have experienced when their classrooms were destroyed. I am impressed by the community’s effort to place their children’s future in such high esteem. Thank you for sharing this with us! In some parts of America, education might not have been as highly prized as in this story. We can all learn something very important from this.

  3. says

    I am a teacher. We went through Katrina. Your story has many echoes for me. While I have written a good deal of fiction since then, none of it is Katrina centered (though my latest novel takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans). I have written poems about the experience, though. Such shocks and uprootings test our sense of self and our sense of commitment, and can be deeply transformative.

    Thank you for sharing this, and reminding me, again, that while we express ourselves through what we build – or write – and that our buildings may be temporary, the soul within, the community, that built them, is immutable.

  4. says

    Thank you for sharing this sad, beautiful, inspiring tale, Juliet. It’s like a modern-day retelling of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I wonder if the arsonist was shocked at the outpouring of positive community support?

  5. says

    Your analogy to storytelling is great, but I’d emphasize this part of it: What saved your school was a powerful community spirit.

    Writers are a similar community. They’re all around us, ready to support when needed, full of ideas and resources. They’re here today, on this site. Reading this post, this comment. This community is you.

    I’m so grateful for the Writer Unboxed community, and the vision of Therese and Kathleen.

    School needs classrooms but truly it lives in the hearts of teachers who want to teach, students who want to learn and parents whose love for their kids starts with filling their breakfast bowls with brain food.

    You live in a beautiful place, Juliet, with big-hearted people…and so do we. We learn and grow every day in a classroom that I hope is permanent.

  6. says

    I don’t want to be a bright-sider here, because I’m sure people will need to work through their grief and loss, but I can’t help but think the 400 students will have gained a life lesson with more impact than all their hours of study. To witness that cohesion, that heart, that resourcefulness… Hope-stories like this are powerful and become embedded almost at the cellular level. (At least I imagine them to be.)

    I wonder what those kids will go on to do and become.

  7. says

    I have been a teacher and reading this piece catapulted me back into my own classroom, which I treasured. I remember how it allowed me a safe place for personal treasures, such as thank you cards and my kids’ artistic efforts. I weep for the teachers whose homes-away-from-home were destroyed so horrifically.

    I weep, also, for the kids to whom every little thing— every strand of normalcy and consistency— means every little “thing”.

    Kudos to the parents, teachers and administrators who came together to make the impossible, possible.

    The mantra that keeps me (MARGINALLY!!!!) sane is: “There are no problems… only challenges!”

    I’m so glad that they all made it through this enormous challenge! Thank you for posting!

  8. says

    This happens every year. Often it is present or former students, sometimes from another school. It’s an example of why security cameras are becoming necessary. In Hawaii, privacy still takes priority over security, but sooner or later, that will change

  9. says

    This post really hit home for me. When I was a junior in high school one of the senior students set fire to our school during winter break. We lived in a deeply rural area where the houses are far apart but the community is tightly knit. My experience was much the same as yours, although our school’s damages weren’t as extensive. We were able to return to the building, but half of it was boarded up for reconstruction.

    As Jan said, that’s an experience you remember forever. And whenever I look back on it I appreciate how quickly everyone pulled together and helped us. And as Don said, I also have a deep appreciation for the WU community, as well as others I’m so lucky to be a part of.

    *group hugs*

  10. says

    Even before you mentioned it, I read this post as a masterful work of story. As you said, it has all the elements, and you will them together deftly. I was moved to tears. Thank you for sharing this with us, and I’m so glad that the community rose up to overcome the negative force that besieged it.

  11. says

    There are terrible people in the world. Every time I think I’ve come to terms with this, another sociopath comes up with a new malicious, senseless thing to do that I could never have imagined or understand.

    But as precious as those things were, and as expensive and difficult as they will be to replace, they are just things. Thank heavens there was nobody inside. Buildings can be reconstructed, pictures can be repainted, but lives are irreplaceable.

  12. sue knight says

    hope they catch the butthead who did this ! As a teacher I can emphasize with the personal loss of all your gear from your room suddenly being gone. I have just spent 2 years on an oval in portables and its scarred me for life. It was great to move in to shiny new buildings, but it wasnt the same. New teachers to the school wont notice and soon the old school will be a forgotten memory of lost in the annals of time. Perhaps thats when you know its time to move on.

  13. Denise Willson says

    Juliet, you made me cry!

    Words are only as strong as the people behind them. I’m honored to be part of this community.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  14. says

    I read this post with tears welling up in my eyes. A year and a half ago, we had a house fire. Our oil burner malfunctioned and if it weren’t for my husband’s fast reflexes, we wouldn’t have made it out of the house alive.

    Yes, we lost many things, but what we gained was so much more.

    Our community, friends, and family supported us, kept us sane, kept us from despair, and celebrated with us when a year later, we moved back into our rebuilt home.

    My heart goes out to your community; to the teachers, students and families. I am thankful that no one was hurt, and thankful that you have so much support.