Nancy Blair’s students squealed and giggled as she read out loud Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” She urged her Rincon Valley Middle School English class to think about descriptive narratives before diving into a writing assignment.
Normalcy appeared to be returning to the 900-student campus after the Tubbs fire three weeks ago destroyed the homes of 113 students and forced hundreds more to evacuate.
“This is so unprecedented that everyone is affected by the tragedy all at the same time,” said Blair, 50, who lost her Mark West Estates home in the fire and is living in a borrowed RV with her husband and their 10-year-old twins.
She’s among the 150 teachers countywide who lost their homes in the fires that erupted Oct. 8. Many already have returned to their schools, hoping to provide some routine for their students and help them cope with the trauma while dealing with their own losses.
“In some ways, it might help my students feel better because I’m going through it, too,” Blair said.
Like her students, Blair said she’s also finding comfort in being back at school, where she’s taught English for the past 24 years. She said the students give her energy, while faculty and staff provide much-needed support as she wrestles with life’s new challenges. They include hunting for a rental home and ensuring her twins have a place to go after school now that they live far from their Mark West Union school district.
“It’s tiring... I’m forgetting names. It’s like having baby brain,” she said, jokingly. But the kids don’t seem to mind.
“They’ve been awesome,” said Blair, who also teaches at Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter, located on the Rincon Valley Middle School campus. “They’re handing me gift cards. The parents are trying to help me find places to live.”
Lesley Van Dordrecht, a second-grade teacher at Mark West Elementary, returned to school Monday, although she initially worried about whether she could handle work after losing her home in Coffey Park.
“I’m still pretty disoriented, and I get tired very fast,” said Van Dordrecht, 62, who’s taught at the school for 24 years. “(But) it has been good for me being around so much love. The young children give you so much hope. They’re always looking forward, not looking back.”
Van Dordrecht and her husband, a musician, escaped minutes before the Tubbs fire engulfed their Hennessy Place home, where they had lived for 29 years. They managed to grab her husband’s favorite guitar and their car keys but not much else.
“Everything was in there — all my kids’ memories. All my husband’s instruments,” Van Dordrecht said.
They managed to secure an apartment a few days after the fire, but it remains empty except for a blow-up mattress and a television a friend gave them to watch the World Series, said Van Dordrecht.
On the first day back at school, she asked her students to write about the fire and its impact on their families. She also talked to them about how the fire affected her family.
“I warned them ‘I might start crying, but it’s all OK. Just come up and give me a hug,’ ” she said.