Whatcom Middle School teacher: 'It was like a nightmare'

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 5, 2009 

BELLINGHAM - Whatcom Middle School staff and families lined the sidewalks around the school in the pre-dawn hours Thursday, Nov. 5, consoling and hugging each other as they watched flames climb out of their school's roof.

"This school is the best school," said seventh-grader Brianna Graham through tears. "I don't want to lose my teachers. ... I don't want to go to another school."

The roof of the 106-year-old school caught fire early Thursday, burning for hours. Most of the fire damage was contained on the top floor and the roof, which partially collapsed into the school; however, much of the school now has severe water damage.

But for teachers with classrooms and students with items on the top floor of the three-floor school, the fire represents a total loss.

"It was like a nightmare that I wanted to wake up from last night," said teacher Sonja Moon, who has spent 35 years at the school and will be retiring in the spring. Her eighth-grade classroom was located on the top floor, right behind the school's flagpole.

"It isn't there anymore," Moon said. "When we were there at 2:30 (a.m.), I could see there were some flames in the room next to mine... and I knew it was gone then."

As the sun came up and students heard the news, the crowd around the school grew. Students flocked to Principal Jeff Coulter, asking him what will happen.

"When I think about a school, it's a building, but it's more than that," he said later in the morning. "We'll re-create that and be back."

Some school's 580 students were glad for the day off, but others were physically ill after hearing the news.

"To think that we went to a normal school day yesterday and then it's gone," said seventh-grader Owen Jewell. "My stomach hurt this morning."

He and three of his classmates gathered near the school.

"I feel like I'm in a dream because I can't process it," said seventh-grader Sara Chaffin, whose mother also attended the school as a teen. "I keep reminding myself that I can't go there for a long time."

"If ever again," added Alex Richard, 12, and his friend Akash Kumar, 12.

Students were concerned and curious Thursday about where they will attend class for the rest of the school year. Many were afraid of being split from their friends and teachers.

They weren't alone - some of the school's 55 teachers and staff were fearing the same thing.

"I don't want to see all the staff split up, have some kids go one way and other kids go the other way," said Moon. "I want to keep the feeling of who we are, that's what makes Whatcom special.

"But we'll do what they ask us to do."

District staff have not decided where to temporarily house students and staff. School is canceled until at least Thursday, Nov. 12.

Some students were upset about lost items - musical instruments, locker contents, P.E. clothes - but many more were upset about losing classwork and projects they had been working on in preparation for student-led parent-teacher conferences scheduled to start in coming weeks.

"We've been doing a lot of writing and a whole bunch of work to get it done," said Bailey McClanahan, 12, who had most of his classes on the top floor. "And now it's gone."

Students and teachers alike hope the school will be renovated or rebuilt at the current location, incorporating the historic feel of the current building and the "Waste Not Thy Hour" slogan above the front door.

The fire at Whatcom is just the latest hurdle in a year full of construction and classroom shuffling due to seismic work on the building.

"I have lots of confidence in my staff and students," Coulter said. "We've been making it work the last 11 months, and we'll make it work until we're back."

Reach KIRA M. COX at kira.cox@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2266. Visit her School Days blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/schools or get updates on Twitter at twitter.com/BhamSchools.

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