BENTON, La. (KSLA) — Winds of more than 100 mph ripped the roof away from one of the classroom wings at Benton Middle School early the morning of Jan. 11.
Water poured in. And classrooms were destroyed.
But there’s one thing that wasn’t destroyed. It was not even dented.
If anything, the giving spirit by so many of you to help the impacted teachers was strengthened.
It’s a tale of how the worst of times simply opened the door wider for the best of times.
For a handful of Benton Middle sixth-grade teachers like math instructor Tiffany Salley, all of the blooming in their classrooms this spring will take place exactly where it was planted just a year ago.
“We’re back actually in the classrooms we were in last year.”
They are back in a portable building just months after moving into the main building to start the fall.
Their second home, the one KSLA News 12′s Doug Warner discovered down a dark and flooded hall and caught on camera after the storms, was destroyed along with much of what was inside their classrooms.
“The shock of the video was like mind-blowing,” sixth-grade science teacher Erika Livers said.
"It was surreal seeing all my cactuses all over the wall and hearing our name, like this is our classroom, " Salley said.
After 21 years, longtime sixth-grade social studies teacher Melanie Kratzer said it’s like starting all over again.
“I’ve had some friends say ‘Oh, my gosh, you know, Kratzer, you’re in shock.’ And I feel actually maybe because it just has not sunk in yet.”
Kratzer says she was able to salvage little to nothing from inside her classroom.
These sixth-grade teachers lost more than school-issued textbooks.
You know, the worst-kept secret in education. The countless supplies and equipment often paid for out of the teachers’ own pockets.
Gone. Just like that. In just a matter of seconds.
“I had put so much time and effort into making my room one of their favorite places to be,” English teacher Shannon Nugent said. “And everything was wiped away.”
Nugent is one of a half dozen teachers who made quick work of setting up make-shift classes after what’s known on campus as the A wing was obliterated by high winds early that Saturday morning.
The hardest part?
“It’s going through the memories and seeing the water damage and physically throwing it away. Kids’ work I’ve saved,” Salley said.
Work from past students.
“I have three kids of my own,” Nugent said.
Or special artworks from their own kids that the teachers kept nearby to help them get through the long days.
“I had taped to the inside of all of my cabinet doors so when I was opening things I could just smile and look at it,” Nugent said.
But not very long after video of KSLA News 12 anchor Doug Warner’s soggy tour through the heavily damaged A wing first hit social media, something else happened.
“I started getting emails from people. I got messages from people that I didn’t know on Facebook,” Nugent recalled.
“Just complete strangers that I don’t even know willing to help,” Livers added.
Emails and Facebook posts.
Free food during cleanup.
Online fundraisers and supply drives like one at Bergeron Cajun Meats, which is located a few miles from the school.
“Whatever helps them to help our kids, I’m all in,” said a spokeswoman for the business.
Yes, the teachers’ struggle is real.
But it’s been made somewhat bearable, namely because of a community that wasn’t about to let Mother Nature have the final say when it comes to the kids in these classrooms.
“Do you know who it was? Just a random person?”
“This is like Christmas.”
“It’s very humbling.”
“This is where I’m going to get emotional,” Livers said. “I want to tell the community thank you from the bottom of my heart for not just helping me out but my team and helping us get back for the kids because that’s who it’s for. It’s for them.”
But for an industry of educators we sometimes forget to thank for spending more time with our kids each day than we do, they truly deserve the unexpected.
“Thank you so much,” Salley said with the arrival of a refrigerator. “... I get to eat.”
These teachers deserve the remarkable.
“You found it!”
Like the pictures and artwork thought to have been lost forever in the storms.
“Oh, my gosh. I’m going to cry That’s my youngest,” Nugent said about the recovery of one piece of artwork.
“These are the things we treasure.”
And these teachers deserve to know we have their backs.
"Is it saved?
“It’s not wet. It’s not wet.”
Rain or shine.
“I can’t fathom what happened. I can’t fathom the fact that so many people have come forward with their generosity. It’s all overwhelming,” Kratzer said.
“1, 2, 3 ... Go Benton!”
And despite losing so much, the teachers made Warner pinky promise that he would also say how thankful they are to all of maintenance and IT personnel, every single person who has stepped on campus from lawmakers to the guy carrying a broom.
And to those Benton firefighters who just happened to be driving by after a call that Saturday morning and saw water shooting from the top of the roof and turned around to check it out.
All of that, and the kids only missed one day of school.
It’s pretty amazing.