Each day was a struggle to pull myself together and make decisions about the day. My world had come crashing in on top of me and yet, I knew that I still had the most precious part of my life with me, my son, who now needed me more than ever before. One night the phone rang and on the other end was a teacher who had worked with me years before. As she related her story, I began to tell mine. She told me of a little school in Pearlington, just across the state line, who needed me to be their librarian and parent coordinator.
"Parent coordinator?" I sobbed. "How in the world can I work with parents and help them when I can't even help myself?"
"Just come take a look," she said, "and then give me an answer."
That was Friday night. Saturday I was in Pearlington and Monday I began the first of the nine years in which I've given my heart to this community.
So much has changed in the nine years I've been there. My husband returned and we daily work on the process of rebuilding our relationship and our family. Professionally there has been just as much work. All of us have worked hard and the results showed that work. Grants were written, programs begun, artists, storytellers, illustrators, and musicians brought their talents to share with us. A joint-use library, the only one in the state, brought in intra-library loans, summer reading programs, and opened the world through the Internet. Parent volunteers spent countless hours painting, weeding, cooking, and caring for the teachers and the children. A working branch of Hancock bank was established with real accounts for the students.
We partnered with local businesses like Boeing, Calgon, and GE and our children learned lessons of school and careers. Programs such as ReadingisFUNdamental and First Book put beloved books in the hands and homes of our children. We received the Governor's Award for Education, RIF's Community Reading Challenge award, many Presidential physical education awards, state awards, and national awards. Test scores soared. We had children who wanted to learn and parents who supported our efforts. One of the most touching photographs that came to me after Katrina was one of my students rifling through a box of books in the shelter. Books! She wanted a book when she didn't even have a home! It was humbling!
August 29th brought all our dreams and plans to an abrupt end. Like the movie, it was the day the earth stood still. We had started the school year August 1st and had celebrated our perfect attendance with a skating party for all the kids that Friday, August 26th. We begged and borrowed skates and limbo poles and that afternoon turned the gym, now Pearl Mart, into a skating rink, complete with a sound system and concessions. I had a book distribution with Rotary that day and reminded the kids to take their books home since our weather forecast was for rain....a good time to read a good book. All that changed as Hurricane Katrina twisted, turned and unleashed her fury on the Gulf Coast.
I evacuated Sunday only to return less than a week later to find utter destruction. Though my home was damaged, it was liveable. If only I had found that in Pearlington! As soon as I was able, I began to try to find my students, my teachers, my friends and bring help in whatever form I could find to this tiny community that was in such need. The rest of the story is one of long hours, countless tears, and working with people all over this country. The generosity and concern of ordinary people, rich and poor, black and white has been what keeps me going. On October 14th we came back together as a school....now only 54 of our original 126 children. We began the first week with two grades to an empty classroom in three rooms in the Middle School's 7th grade hall almost 20 miles from Pearlington. We were then moved to 4 portable classrooms. The school district provided children’s desks, children’s chairs, textbooks (though not at first),and some teacher desks.
The rest came from across this land as people responded to our pleas. With each donation came a story. From homemade suckers sold for us in Montana, to Christmas stockings made with each child's name and filled with treats from Maine, to boxes of books and clothing. Sweatshirts with our school name to help the kids retain some sense of identity came from schools in Hawaii and the Indian reservation in northern Mississippi. Computers and software were built just for us and provided through another wonderful business in Virginia. Notes, letters, pictures, and presents came daily. Christmas was like none other in the lives of my children as people sent box after box of brightly wrapped presents! As others cleaned debris and trees so residents could return, our student population rose. We ended the school year with 82. Who knows what would have happened if we had been allowed to remain?
So what is our status now? It certainly seems that things must be good! Things were coming together in spite of all that had happened. Yet, things are not good. Not at least for us....not in the eyes of those of us who understood what we had and what we've lost.
The school district has chosen not to rebuild Charles B. Murphy. There are lots of reasons: FEMA elevations, flood maps, insurance, loss of tax revenues, dwindling populations. Our children will remain in the portables where we are, but we will be combined with the other school that had been destroyed in Lakeshore. My teachers spent the last days of school packing once more to move to different classrooms and different grades; some to different schools or even to different lives outside of teaching. Our name, or at least what we'll be known as, is GV/CBM. Not exactly easy for a kindergartener to remember or catchy for a school cheer!
As we moved, we cried! Not just tears of frustration and despair but tears of grief and loss! Loss of a school, loss of a community, loss of friends! I will remain, though in a different capacity. I will pledge to do my best, though I feel my best wasn't good enough to keep us together.
I will miss you, Charles B. Murphy! You will forever remain in my heart!