These Are My Students; This Is My School

08/14/2011 07:45 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2011

The bare walls of a classroom without children can be the scariest thing for a teacher.
When August arrives, teachers have to find a way to make what is essentially just another room into an educational Shangri-La where children will come for nine months to learn the lessons of life.

I have never been good at this. Trained for 22 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, when I entered the classroom I had no concept of colorful bulletin boards and posters with inspirational sayings.

And this year, though I am loath to admit it, the last thing I wanted to do was to decorate a classroom.

This is not my building. This is not my room.

My school, Joplin East Middle School, met its demise Sunday, May 22, when a tornado ripped its way through my city, destroying everything in sight. As I looked at the bare walls of my new classroom, located in a spec building in an industrial park, I have to admit I was thoroughly depressed, a feeling quite familiar to those who have dealt with the aftermath of the tornado. And it was something I had to put behind me, since in a few short hours the East Middle School Family Picnic was scheduled to introduce students and parents to the new facility.

Since depression doesn't get the job done, I reached into a cardboard box and pulled out a stack of old papers -- some of the best written by my students over the years -- the papers that have hung proudly on my Writers' Wall of Fame.

I had room to put 20 papers on my new bulletin board. These would be the papers that would set the bar high for my new students when they enter the classroom Aug. 17. Somehow these papers had survived the tornado, offering teenagers' thoughts from years past.

I reread them before I put them on the wall -- Amy's modern-day short story "Laptop Love," Dylan's research paper on Emmett Till, Sarah's poem that appeared in a national publication, Steve's essay on child abuse, Katey exploring the horrors of cyberbullying.

I grabbed the tacks and placed Mary Jean's short story about a "Jade Tiger," Jessica's award-winning patriotic essay about the American flag, and Sarah's essay on students treating each other hurtfully, on the bulletin board.

Two papers were filled with unintentional irony. Laela criticized the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church. A little more than a year later, church members protested at the Joplin Tornado Memorial Service, a service designed to bring the community together... a service that meant a lot to Laela, who lost her home in the tornado.

Sabrina R. wrote about the need for each student to have a laptop. Because of the tornado, Joplin High School students will have laptops when they return to school.

The last two papers I put on the Wall of Fame did not look like the others. While the first 18 papers had been stored safely away in folders, the last two were on the Wall of Fame when the tornado hit.

At first, I thought they were too battered and dirt-covered to be on the wall, and then I realized that is exactly why they had to be there.

Miranda's paper talked about censorship at school, with several words cleverly blacked out. Sabrina S's paper was a touching tribute to her friend, Clayton... who had been killed in a tornado three years earlier.

As I placed the final paper on the Wall of Fame, I heard voices in the hallway. Students and parents were arriving early to receive their first look at our new facility. One girl raced into my classroom and shouted, "Mr. Turner, I'm in your class this year!' and proceeded to tell me what she had been doing all summer.

Before long, the classroom was filled with students, former students, and parents. The conversations, surprisingly, were not centered on the tornado, but were about the new educational adventure we would be beginning in six short days.

As the East Middle School Family Picnic continued, I watched the interaction between students, parents, and my fellow faculty members. The value of education to a community had never been spelled out more clearly. The depression of a few short hours earlier had vanished.

It was a building that was destroyed by the tornado. My school is alive and well