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.