In wake of Valley fire, students return to school in Middletown
When Middletown High School reopened Monday, more than two weeks after the raging Valley fire burned within a block of the campus and forced the suspension of classes, the acrid odor of smoke and soot still hung in its courtyard. The gym was closed while the cleanup was finished.
Three school district counselors approached the principal, Bill Roderick, who was observing his students - nearly all of whom had been at least temporarily displaced by the wildfire that burned at least 1,280 homes in Lake County - as they trickled in and reunited, many with hugs, some with tears.
A special area had been set up for the counselors to work with students, Roderick said, along with two private rooms.
“I’m going to be honest,” he told the counselors. “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of kids. Our kids are here and they’re going to get their arms around each other.”
It was that kind of day, with resilience and determination interlaced with intensely personal interactions, as about 455 of an enrolled 480 students made it back to school. Of the student body, an estimated 100 had lost their homes, Roderick said. At the middle school, on the same campus, 41 of 259 students lost homes to the blaze that is now 97 percent contained.
Cobb Mountain Elementary School, with 162 students - at least 46 of whom lost homes to the fire - has moved onto the Middletown campus for at least a month while its buildings, which suffered severe smoke damage, are cleaned.
“My staff has been absolutely incredible in their adaptation, and my students as well,” said Cobb Mountain’s principal, David Leonard. “I can tell you it’s just amazing to see all these kids out there with smiles on their faces.”
Leonard, whose home was destroyed by the blaze, broke down in tears describing the community’s support of the kindergarten-through-sixth grade school.
“One of the things that just fills my heart is that the fact that they live there because of the school, and they tell me that,” he said. “To me, it’s why they want to rebuild,” he said.
Of 200 Middletown Unified School District employees, at least 30 have lost homes, including Roderick, his vice principal, a counselor and about a dozen teachers and staff at the high school.
“We know what the kids are going through and it’s ... ” Roderick paused, gathering himself. “It’s tough, it’s tough.”
It was the kind of school day where during third period, the principal - on whose desk sat checks representing thousands of dollars in donations - made this announcement: “Any students who lost their homes or belongings in the fire, report to room seven.”
So while the school’s reopening was a start, routine and normalcy remained elusive.
“It feels like a normal Monday, and then you see some people crying,” said senior Nathaniel Lentz, 17.
Roderick’s white t-shirt bore what has become the rallying cry for town and school: “Middletown Strong.” Throughout the day, the t-shirts were distributed to students, most of whom promptly donned them, re-coloring the complexion of the courtyard, halls and classrooms.
There was something reassuring about being back on campus, some students said.
“Seeing everything was scary,” said senior Taylor Montelli, 18, referring to the multitude of burned buildings and cars that now pockmark the town of 1,300. “I didn’t know what was burned or not, because of all the rumors. I kept hearing, ‘The school is down,’ then it wasn’t, then it was.”
Teachers reported that their classes were anything but normal. Shaun Roderick’s ninth grade health class was no exception, though there were a few traces of pre-fire concerns -“Can we not watch that movie again?” one boy said as Roderick got herself organized.
Roderick, who is married to Principal Bill Roderick, announced to her students, “We’re just going to talk, to chit-chat, to be together again.”
“As your teacher, I don’t know what to do - I’m not going to lie to you,” she said.
“I’m going to take roll - then I’m going to ask you a couple of hard questions,” she said.
“Most of you know I lost my home, so talking about it is surreal,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you. I’m not an expert in counseling but I’m an expert in being here for you.”
Five students in the class of 13 had lost their homes to the fire. Two were present Monday.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” Roderick said to a girl in the front row. The girl’s neighbor in class was also her neighbor at home and she, too, had lost her home.
A girl in the back row said her father’s home and her grandmother’s home had burned.