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Margaret Warnemunde

© 2003

Yesterday and Today

We were the lucky ones. Our classrooms on the third floor were going to be the first ones remodeled in phase one of the renovation project that our school was undertaking. The third floor had been the least desirable space in the entire school for many years, and now we looked forward to a new and open space.

As we packed up our classrooms in June, we carefully labeled each box - math books, art supplies, games, etc. We joked about how our classrooms had become our home away from home and contained many of the comforts we kept there - an extra pair of shoes, a sweater, even a toothbrush and toothpaste. I had one box labeled “memories.” I spent many moments recalling previous students as I packed away class pictures from almost thirty years of teaching. I laughed to myself as I shuffled through the pictures. There was Michael dancing across the room with the life-size Easter bunny. Chris, Greg, and Sean (in wigs) smiled back at me as “The Tardy Girls”. Another photo captured Katie and Christine in their pajamas, noses pressed against the dolphin tank, in awe, but clearly excited to be sleeping at the zoo. Cards, notes, art work, and special gifts collected over the years brought back many fond memories. I found David’s note addressed to Mrs. Warn-Out-On-Monday and the book from Elizabeth, created with hand-made paper and dedicated to me. I reread letters in the large book presented to me in celebration of my twenty-five years at Annunciation - a letter from every student and staff member, as well as many parents. The delicate ornaments handmade by families in remembrance of our Christmas programs were carefully wrapped and placed in the box. Packing away all these memories was a challenge. A classroom is a hard thing to pack away and move to the end of the hall.

Before the task of packing was complete, the workers arrived. They helped move my many boxes out of their way and down the hall. Tony and Brian were their names, and yes, they were going to be knocking down walls. They were also going to create a chute at the hall windows for the debris so they would not have to carry it down three flights of stairs. My teaching partner, Leslie, and I reminded them that we needed to be back in our classrooms at the end of August, so they better get to work. We left our old classrooms and knew when we returned, things would be very different.

It was about 9:15 on a warm July evening when I returned from shopping. No one was home, and I noticed the flashing red light to alert me that there was a message waiting. After entering the required information into the phone, I heard the familiar voice say, “You have one new message and five saved messages. To listen to your new messages, press one.”

In routine fashion, I pressed one, and heard my son, “Mom, this is Dan. Your school is on fire! I repeat, your school is on fire! People from your school have been calling and I saved the messages.”

“To repeat this message, press one,” came the familiar voice again. I pressed one and heard my son repeat the same message over again. I was in shock. My heart was racing and it seemed like the room was closing in on me.

I gasped for breath and soon realized that familiar voice was again speaking, “To delete this message press three.” Trembling, I pressed three. Then the voice again, “To listen to saved messages, press one.”

“Message one, received at 5:47 p.m.”

“Margaret, this is Liz. Call me as soon as you get home.” Delete.

“Message two, received at 5:54 p.m.”

“Margaret, this is Dianne Brain. I am standing outside school and the third floor is on fire. The fire trucks are here and I’m watching . . .”

Each message held bits and pieces of the same grim news. My school was on fire. The third floor - my classroom - was on fire.

I called Leslie, who lives a few blocks from school. She responded, “It’s about time you called. Where have you been?” I listened in silence as she answered each question before I asked it. “Yes, it’s true. The third floor is ruined. Thank God the fire was contained at the end of the hall where the chute was. No one was hurt. Word is out that it was kids who set the fire.” Leslie rambled on as I silently took it all in. “I was just up there. Your stuff is gone. It’s all gone! You won’t believe it when you see it. Watch the 10:00 news - all the stations were there. I heard it was Calvin and Ryan and another boy. They were up there with Theresa. Supposedly Calvin lit a napkin on fire and threw it down the chute. The fire alarm went off. Everyone got out okay. Tony and Brian were already gone for the day. But your stuff is burned. You won’t believe it when you see it. You have to come here tomorrow morning.”

The next morning I drove to Leslie’s house and we went to school. The brick exterior was charred from the fire, the windows were broken, the chute was torn down, and there was yellow tape at the stairwell to prevent anyone from going upstairs. We crawled under the tape and slowly ascended the stairs to our classrooms. There was still water on the floor, broken glass everywhere, and walls that looked like they had been painted black. This was our second home, and it was ruined in one short moment. All our work and collecting went down that chute with the napkin.

It was true. The contents of my classroom that were so carefully boxed up and stored at the end of the hall were reduced to melted plastic, blackened remains, and ashes. As I stared at the rubble in disbelief, the insurance adjusters arrived and required us to leave. As we walked away, I thought of the mementos and treasures from thirty years of teaching. They were gone. Irreplaceable. Gone was Hannah’s watercolor. Gone was the shell wreath Annie had made after her Florida vacation. Gone were the pencil sketches of birds from Teflon. Gone were the math puzzles Krista found to stump me. Gone was Fiona’s advice for fifth grade. All gone and priceless.

There have been numerous repercussions from that lit napkin thrown down the chute. The three boys responsible went through the process of restorative justice. One part of this process found me meeting face to face with the boys and their parents. My recounting of the effects of the fire produced tears, words of sorrow and remorse, and the revelation that my personal hurt could now begin to heal. Leslie and I, the main “victims” of the fire, had to do an inventory for the insurance company. Smoke and water damaged items were easily recorded, but the boxes that went up in smoke were but a memory. Monetary value could easily be attached to computers and desks, but priceless items from students and friends cannot be replaced. The renovation project was delayed, and we began our school year in small rooms not equipped to be classrooms. Texts were quickly replaced, but the process of reordering and replacing all the items that go into a classroom has taken a year. Some items can’t be replaced, some books are no longer available, and that perfect poster found on vacation won’t be found again. These things are gone forever.

It’s been a year since the fire. Our classroom space is open, clean, and beautiful. It’s what we had anticipated that June as we packed up our classrooms. The new is everywhere - every bookcase, desk, chair, wastebasket, computer, book, pen, and staple.

Yet, there is a sense of loss. Lost is the comfort of the old, the memories of thirty years, my history. The physical presence of a memento could summon my memory to go back in time. Without the tangible pieces, I fear those special memories will slowly grow hazy, passing eventually into obscurity. There are now new notes, new art work, and new gifts. Alex’s car sketch, Pegeen’s letter, Claire’s painted vase, Dane’s framed picture - these are a part of a new chapter. Today, another story is beginning.