With just a few notes of music, the secret that I have kept hidden for nearly four decades returned to my mind in vivid stereophonic sound.
It was the same song -- Philadelphia's Ernest Evans, better known as Chubby Checker, exhorting listeners to do the twist. At that Student Council Sock Hop in the spring of 1974, while dancing with Janice Lide, an attractive junior with a saucy Texas twang, I followed his advice and Chubby Checkered my way into ripping my best dress pants.
To me, it was the rip heard round the world. Blessed with the hindsight of 38 additional years, I am certain I am the only one who heard that horrifying sound.
Hopefully, no one who attended the Joplin East Middle School Christmas Dance last week at the converted warehouse we have called home since our building was destroyed in the May 22 tornado left the building harboring any secrets of that nature.
It was a fitting end to the most trying semester our students have ever had. Just seven months ago, they were preparing for the end of their second year in a state-of-the-art facility paid for through the courtesy of Joplin taxpayers, who recognized the need for two new middle schools and a refurbished third one in our community.
When the tornado hit, it was the students who attended East who were hit the hardest since it ripped through nearly the entire area from which we draw our students. District officials made the commitment to provide stability for the students by opening school on time and less than three months after the tornado school bells sounded.
For students at Joplin High School, which was destroyed by the storm, some are attending school at a converted box store at Northpark Mall. Others are going to school in a building that has recently been used as a middle school, but had been a high school in the past.
East Middle School students are nestled snugly in an industrial park, greeted each morning by the enticing aroma emanating from the dog food factory across the street. The classrooms are smaller than the students were used to and many of them, including their music and physical education classes, are conducted in modular units. Standing by those modular units, and serving as a source of comfort, is a large FEMA safe room that will protect our students and staff in the event that we are revisited by the horrors of May 22.
Thoughts of death and destruction, which have been weaved into the fabric of our lives for the past seven months, were nowhere to be found as our sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, dressed in what passes for the height of fashion in this community, moved in ways that even Chubby Checker couldn't have imagined a few decades ago.
Thanks to our parent-teacher organization, which sponsored the dance, the evening went off without a hitch. As much as I enjoyed watching the twisting competition (in spite of my traumatic high school experience), most of the music was of the Katy Perry-Justin Bieber variety or hip-hop numbers that will likely never be featured on my iPod.
In some ways, not just the music, dances have changed considerably since I was in school. No longer are the walls lined with metal folding chairs where the less popular students sat waiting for someone to ask them to dance or dreading how they would respond if someone did approach them. That is an improvement.
Chips and salsa are far better refreshments than the packaged cookies and greasy potato chips I remember.
But in some ways, the school dance never changes. The noise, the decorations, the students running from one corner of the room to another, not wanting to miss out any of the experience. Those things haven't changed from 1974 to 2011, and they will undoubtedly be the same in 2050.
It doesn't matter if the dance is held in a large gymnasium like the one we had at the school that we lost on May 22, or in a cafeteria/commons area in a warehouse in an industrial park.
The Christmas dance was another sign of the resilience that East Middle School students have shown. Even though their friends at the other two Joplin middle schools are still attending school every day in modern, nearly new school buildings, the children, including the ones I teach, have not sat around feeling sorry for themselves.
Even in this setting, thoughts of May 22 gave way to fun, friends, and music. The biggest disasters at the dance were a couple of verbal encounters which were diffused before they developed into fights and a misunderstanding or two between boyfriend and girlfriend. Hopefully, no one heard the ripping sound that I heard in 1974.
Nothing unusual happened at the East Middle School dance. It was a school dance, nothing more, nothing less ... what a wonderful Christmas present for this most resilient group of young people.
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