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Laela Zaidi Headshot

The Year Without Fries

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The first day of my freshman year of high school, I remember walking through the doors and feeling as excited as every other kid. This was it: I was starting the last four years of my life in the small town of Joplin, Missouri before moving on to college. No longer was I a dorky middle school student. I was with the big kids. That first morning, I was lost in a mass of teenagers walking through Eagle Alley, the bustling hallway that connected two sides of the school. Eagle Alley included one bench for each grade (minus the freshmen), symbolizing the structure of high school culture. Later, I stumbled upon a storage closet that had chairs and tables inside where a handful of students were killing time before the first period bell rang. This became my new morning hangout: yes, a closet. I will also never forget the popular, salty french fries served in the cafeteria -- they were so delicious that many students didn't mind waiting in long lunch lines to buy them. I had always pictured freshman year being scary, awkward, and the start of what could be the worst years of my life, but high school wasn't as bad as I imagined it to be. Every day meant a new opportunity to make more memories. The high school was my backyard (no really, I lived across the street), and a chance to learn and be part of a community.

This year, however, there is no sophomore bench for my friends and I to enjoy. There are no energetic hallways, no closets to finish our homework in before class, and no more delicious fries in the lunchroom. No longer can I walk to school 10 minutes before class begins. In a matter of minutes, all of those places became piles of debris. Four months ago, a person could pass Joplin High School and see my red brick home in the background, complete with a dark green mansard roof. Today, a passerby will see an eerie, abandoned structure that was once Joplin High with no homes nearby -- just a clear sprawl of where neighborhoods once stood. And while many of the camera crews and volunteers that initially responded to the tornado have disappeared, to the citizens of Joplin, this scene is still an everyday reminder of the disaster that struck on May 22.

On August 17, schools reopened, and most students were more anxious and excited to see their friends than any other first day of school. The new freshmen and sophomores are now attending classes in a building that previously functioned as my middle school. The familiar hallways and classrooms bring back memories from those awkward school years. Some freshmen feel like they're still in the eighth grade. For the sophomores, the makeshift school is a cold reminder of what we are lacking: instead of bustling lounges filled with television screens and juniors and seniors (who are attending school in a brand-new facility on the north side of town), our school's interior is comprised of stark white walls, empty corridors and unused lockers. There are no seniors towering above us -- no older role models to look up to. Teachers are making the most of the little space they can gather, since many classes have 30 or more students.

Don't get me wrong. We are still grateful for what we do have. Every student has been provided with a MacBook. Our definitions of home have turned from "po-dunk small town" to "a place I am proud to say I'm from." But it's still difficult to go a day or two without thinking of what we're missing out on, and feeling gloomy. Even up to this point I sometimes find myself just a little heartbroken to pass by our broken high school, with no red brick home standing in the background. However, sometimes when I see my old neighborhood, I envision a bigger, better place. Instead of a chewed-up building, my mind imagines a state-of-the-art facility that will house thousands of students under the same roof in a matter of three to five years.

As my mother always tells me, we don't always sit under the shade of the trees we plant today. While I cannot say such a school will be where I graduate from, what I can say is that the future high school will provide the same comforting memories to upcoming generations of Joplin students that the old high school did for me. Delicious fries included.