Whatcom students return to class amid cheers and applause

Fairhaven Middle School students welcome 7th graders from Whatcom Middle School to Fairhaven Middle on Thursday morning, Nov. 12, 2009.  This was the students' first day back to school since the fire at Whatcom Middle on Nov. 5.
Fairhaven Middle School students welcome 7th graders from Whatcom Middle School to Fairhaven Middle on Thursday morning, Nov. 12, 2009. This was the students' first day back to school since the fire at Whatcom Middle on Nov. 5. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - When Whatcom Middle School students and staff returned Thursday, Nov. 12, a week after their school was severely damaged in a fire, they didn't just return to class.

They were welcomed back by the enthusiastic staff and students at their new host schools.

The 580 Whatcom students started their day at Bellingham High School for an all-school assembly. Students and staff proudly wore new T-shirts, featuring a flaming "W" and the slogan "Waste Not Thy Hour" on the front and the phrase "Too hot to handle" emblazoned across the back.

The T-shirts, provided by the private fundraising group the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation, are one of many measures school officials and students hope will help keep everyone united as Whatcom Middle School Wildcats, despite being split among four other schools for now.

"As sad as this is, we have to remember Whatcom Middle School is not just a building, it's us and we don't need a building to hold us together," Associated Student Body president Katie Bauer told her fellow students during the assembly. "Our Whatcom spirit did not burn in the fire, it's still with us."

Whatcom students and staff laughed, cried and cheered through the assembly, listening to Principal Jeff Coulter describe the impact the early morning Nov. 5 fire has had on the greater Bellingham community. He even brought a special guest, 1929 Whatcom High graduate Alice Fraser, to show the students Whatcom's history is well integrated into the community. The school started 106 years ago as a high school.

"It's kind of like a long green line that starts in 1903 and it didn't end November 5," Coulter told students.

As students filed out of the auditorium, they were cheered on by hundreds of Bellingham High students and staff who gathered in the commons and front steps to give students a heartfelt and supportive send-off.

Sixth- and seventh-graders were loaded onto buses - four for each grade - and headed out to Geneva Elementary and Fairhaven Middle schools respectively.

Eighth-graders stayed at Bellingham High School in their own wing, nicknamed the Wildcat Wing after the school mascot.

Students and teachers in the special education BRIDGES program went to Squalicum High School, which is where the high school BRIDGES program is housed.

The sixth-graders arrived at Geneva Elementary to a crowd of waving students and staff. As they got off the buses, Geneva students clapped and chanted "Wildcats, Wildcats," as James Brown's "I Feel Good" blared on the speakers.

"It's definitely going to be different, but it's a good opportunity to try new things," said sixth-grader Rachel Dorr. "It really makes me feel like this is where I'm going to be for the next year. They really want us to feel welcome at the school."

A group of younger kids held a sign that read "Welcome Wildcats," and many other signs were posted throughout the school. The open-armed welcome helped ease some of the worry and sadness students felt after the fire.

"I was really sad. I cried until I got sick," said Kirat Khabra about her school's fire. "But then this school feels really fun because they're all very welcoming, so I'm pretty sure it's going to be a good year."

The scene at Fairhaven Middle School was similar, with all students and staff lining the front steps and hallways of the school to welcome the Whatcom refugees.

"It's going to be a pretty good experience," said Kenric Aalund-Nelson, 12, on the bus ride over. "We're going to be able to meet different seventh-graders and make new friends. ... But it won't be the same."

"We'll always miss the old building," added his friend, Chaz Aikala, 12.

Even though Fairhaven Middle School is maintaining its identity with maroon and grizzlies all over the place, the school was temporarily transformed for the Whatcom students, with the front display showcasing the Wildcats and students and staff decked out in various shades of green.

"We're super excited," said Fairhaven ASB president Zoe Schackel, 13. "After the honeymoon period, I think we'll feel really cramped, but our school will get through it."

During an assembly for all students at Fairhaven, which is now 740 strong, Principal Deirdre O'Neal shared how proud she is of her students and staff and assured Whatcom students and staff that they are "welcome here."

"January 1, 1936, our school burned down and students went to Whatcom Middle School," O'Neal said. "We have been indebted to your school and your community for 73 years, and we fully embrace the opportunity to repay our debt."

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