JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — The trophy case by the front entrance is empty. Step ladders line some hallways, next to unopened boxes of computer monitors and other equipment.
As workers in tornado-ravaged Joplin rushed to prepare ahead of Wednesday's start of fall classes, signs of unfinished business were prevalent at what is now Joplin High School's upper-level campus. No one seemed to mind, though, not when juniors and seniors get to call a converted big-box retail store at the city's only mall their new home.
An open house that showcased the school's college-like atmosphere — complete with Joplin Joe's coffee bar and free laptops for each student — seemed to win over plenty of skeptics.
Students have spent nearly three months hauling debris, attending friends' funerals, watching endless TV images of the destroyed school and trying to put their lives back together. Finally, they're getting back to what passes for normal in a city where 160 people died and hundreds more were injured the country's single deadliest tornado in six decades.
"You can't pretend like nothing happened," said English teacher Brenda White." But everything is so new here. Every single thing that is this school is new and different.
"It's going to take a while to build everything back, but books are a good start," she said while stocking her classrooms with copies of The Great Gatsby, The Kite Runner and other literary staples, past and present.
The school system was hit especially hard by the May 22 tornado. Seven students and one employee were among the victims, including a senior pulled from his car by vicious winds on his way home from Joplin High's Sunday afternoon graduation ceremony.
Six school buildings were destroyed, including Joplin High. Seven other buildings were badly damaged.
School district leaders quickly realized that they would play an outsized role in Joplin's recovery, for reasons symbolic as much as practical. They expanded the hours and locations of summer school, well aware that the community's children needed a reassuring routine — and their parents the time to deal with insurance agents, contractors and social service agencies.
They cobbled together a hodge-podge of temporary locations for fall classes, from the old Shopko store at Northpark Mall to the recently-vacated Missouri Department of Transportation district office where the superintendent and other administrators now work. Rival elementary schools combined, and a middle school found space in an industrial park.
Even in a corner of the country where hard work is cherished, the swiftness of the transformation was striking, White said.
"I've always known people are strong here. But this has really brought it home," she said. "People are so strong. They just get up, dust off and go to work. That's what we do here."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier.