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.

“It’s going to hurt because that’s family memories,” Roderick told her. The girl bit her lip.

Roderick said that as far as grades, she was starting fresh.

“I’m starting my book at zero,” she said. She smiled a little smile. “That’s good for some of you.”

There would be no P.E. classes for a while, Roderick said, until the students’ gym clothes were cleaned of the stink of smoke.

Her students had questions.

“Is this going to affect our summer?” one asked.

She said, “We don’t know yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

At one point, Roderick just shook her head.

“I don’t even know what to do with you guys; I don’t even know what to do,” she said. “Do you want to just go back into it, and talk about health?” There were a few nervous laughs.

Then a girl asked for how long school would start at 9 a.m., as it did Monday. For the foreseeable future, Roderick said, to accommodate those students who have had to move farther away.

She asked the class to write down what their biggest fears were and how the school could support them and help them succeed.

A few minutes later, a girl showed her paper to Roderick and said, “I don’t know how to fix this.”

Roderick read it and took a breath. “Well, I can talk to you about it,” she said. “I can’t fix it but I can talk to you about it.”

Roderick was wearing flip-flops, her only footwear for 15 days after the fire. Later, outside the classroom, she said, “These flip flops represent.”

She told the class a story about doing her hair Monday morning, so she wouldn’t show up “a hot mess.”

“Where are you staying?” a student asked. “How are you holding up?” a boy asked.

“This fire took my home, this fire took all my belongings; I will not let this fire destroy my family,” she said. “I know we can’t talk about prayer and God in public school, but this morning I said my prayer.”

“So I’m holding it together,” she said, “day by day and step by step.”

“Are we going to have homecoming?” a girl asked.

The answer is yes, and the plan is to have it be bigger and better than before, even though three of the four class floats were destroyed in the Sept. 12 fire.

“We’re still going to be Middletown,” Roderick said. She told the class she had decided they would move on from studying the life skills unit to the drug, alcohol, and tobacco prevention unit.

“Stuff you’re interested in,” she said.

Then, she asked, “You guys happy to be back?”

There were some big sighs, several “yeahs.”

One girl told a story about her family having to outrun the flames in their car while evacuating.

“There’s not really a person we know and care about who wasn’t affected, it’s just so much,” said Roderick. “Stupid fire.”

A boy asked about the accelerated reading assignments for English. The requirements would be lifted, the teacher said.

“Oh, good - mine burned,” the boy replied.

Roderick told her students they would likely go through different feelings: anger, sadness, happiness.

She also told them a story. When she and Bill Roderick were seniors at Lindhurst High School in Olivehurst in 1992, a disgruntled student shot and killed three students and a teacher. It was a trauma that pushed her into teaching, she told her spellbound health class.

“That’s how I know, guys, that we’ll work through this,” she said.

After class, a boy said, “I’m sorry about your house, Mrs. Roderick” and gave her a hug.

Later, during lunch period, that boy, a senior named Ezequiel Cervantes, 17, sat with his friend, Cinthia Pinzon, 17.

“Things could happen in a second,” he said. “Things that you build up over years, they can go in hours. It’s scary because you can’t control it.”

His barber, cousin and several friends lost their homes, he said. Pinzon, a junior, said her uncle and godmother lost their homes.

“It’s normal here but outside of school, it’s not normal,” she said.

For complete wildfire coverage go to:

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at You can reach him at 521-5212 or On Twitter @jeremyhay.?

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