A school is more than a school: How does a community recover when it burns down?
Morningside State School pupils awoke to a devastating scene on Tuesday morning, with nearly a quarter of the historic school razed. (ABC News: Freya Petersen)
The shock and confusion felt by students and their families was palpable in the groups that gathered behind the police tape, watching fire crews douse flare-ups and investigators work to establish a cause and a motive — if it even mattered — for the destruction.
I stood among them, having walked the several blocks from my house, my phone pinging with message after message as the neighbourhood awoke to the news.
Having grown up in the area, these streets — and the faces of many who inhabit them even decades after my childhood — feel like an extension of home and family.
Morningside kids, given an impromptu day off school, gather to watch crews sift through the wreckage of their school. (ABC News: Freya Petersen)
A large chunk of our picturesque Morningside State School in inner Brisbane had burned down the middle of the night.
At first glimpse, it was obvious the heavy overnight rain had done little to hinder the flames, and as news crews interviewed teary teachers and shocked parents there were murmurs and rumours in the crowd.
“I couldn’t believe it [it’s a] really good school, everyone there is excellent,” said one father, standing with an arm around his stunned 11-year-old son.
“It’s just so wrong,” said mother standing close by with her school-aged daughters.
“The poor kids and the teachers that put everything into their students and this school,” said yet another parent, adding, “I think it will hit the community really hard.”
One onlooker asked simply, “How could this happen to a school?”
‘The smell was still in those textbooks’
Communities across Australia have gone through the same soul-searching that Morningside is experiencing now and it leaves a scar.
Kerry Jones’s memories of the fire that destroyed her high school are still so raw that being asked to recall the event three decades on catches her off-guard.
Kerry Jones said she hadn’t realized how much it would hurt to talk about the Narooma High school fire, even three decades on. (Supplied)
“My lingering memory is of everyone just sort of linking arms and just crying — and the smell of the burning school, I will never forget that.
“Some of the books and things like that had survived, and that smell was still in those textbooks,” says the ancient history teacher, who worked at Narooma High School on the NSW south coast for 35 years. In 1987, it was burnt to the ground by a group of “angry” young local men.
“It was still burning in the morning when everyone got there. I could still smell that acrid plastic smell of all the chairs that melted. And the flames of the fire was so hot that the steel girders were actually bent.
“Everyone just had their arms around each other — I’m sorry, I’m about to cry now — and we just cried and we just watched our school keep burning.
“The fire brigade couldn’t do anything — there was no water pressure for the hoses — so I watched 20 years of my resources gone. Slides I had taken as a history teacher, slides I had taken in Egypt. You know, books I bought at the British Museum and all over the world to help me with my teaching. All gone.
“Kids’ artwork and the boys’ major woodworks, all gone. And you know it just the most devastating time I think in my teaching career, apart from the death of students.”
Sonya Bell was Narooma High captain at the time, and said the 1987 fire could not have happened at a worse time for her and many of her peers.
“I lost my year 12 major artwork along with all of my classmates’ artworks,” she said. “It was a very sad and highly emotional time, as we year 12 students were also soon to sit our HSC exams, which we had to do at the primary school. It certainly hit the community very hard.
“Academically, when we sat our final exams a month after none of us were fully prepared. I had to sit in a room with an examiner and explain the piece of art I’d just spent two years working on. Looking back we all coped, but not a lot of us went onto university or other study. It shocked us a bit.
“One thing we did find, though, is all the community groups — CWA, a lot of sporting clubs in town — came together to do fundraising, and everyone was involved. I do believe that the person who burned our school down did that purely to get back at the community, but it did the opposite. If anything, it made the community band together and become stronger.”
Narooma high was “voted as one if the best schools in the state before it burnt. It was such a masterpiece in a beautiful environment.” (Supplied)
Help from all corners
Along with the sense of loss, Mrs Jones recalls “the love that we felt from all over the place” as Narooma High School started rebuilding.
“People sent us books, they sent us money and they sent you know there were lots of letters came in. It was just the whole town just sort of pulled together to get the school back up and running. It was incredible,” she says.
“Also, I probably never really thought about how kids thought about school. How much they loved it, and they probably hadn’t thought about that either.
“They probably had thought, ‘it would be great if the school burned down — we wouldn’t have to go to school’. But in reality was they but when happened they didn’t think like that at all. They were just as upset as the parents and teachers.”
Mrs Jones said everyone felt like it had been done to them personally.
“That said, the feeling was the arsonists didn’t actually do it against the school, because they weren’t actually going to the school. There had been fights in town and they had been kicked out of the pub. I think these young guys where angry and they just struck out and it was an easy target — on the outskirts of town, made of wood. The feeling was more that it was against the town rather than the actual kids in the school.
“The kids were amazing. They were resilient and they just, you know, went with it. Probably it was hardest for the kids from Wallaga Lake community whose neighbours had burnt the school down. They were too scared to come back to school because they thought they’d be blamed, which they weren’t.
“We had to really sort of encourage them and get them to come back to school. It’s OK, you know like it’s not your fault, you’re not responsible for what other people do, sort of thing.”
Morningside State School classrooms were built to last, but nothing could have survived this week’s inferno.
History up in flames
In October of 1928, Brisbanites turned out en masse to greet one of their own, Brisbane-born aviator Charles Kingsford Smith, who had recently earned global fame by flying his plane, the Southern Cross, non-stop on the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia.
In 1928, Brisbanites turned out to greet their most famous son, Charles Edward Kingsford Smith, and Morningside State school expanded.
The Queenslander Pictorial devoted almost an entire edition to “Smithy’s” feat, bar a few pages at the back. There it found space to announce the opening of Morningside State School’s newest wing, with an accompanying picture of the sturdily built hardwood structure, complete with the wide verandahs and large windows so typical of the era, and so essential to ameliorating the heat of a Queensland summer.
It is the same building, ultimately heritage listed, that Morningside community members watched burn to a pile of ashes and rubble this week, along with two others.
Janelle Duncan’s father was among the school’s first prep pupils. Leafing through the family’s near-century-old copy of the Pictorial, she points him out in a grainy black-and-white photograph. “He’s the one with the tie, and no shoes on,” she laughs.
Ms Duncan, now a prep teacher’s aide at Morningside State School, spoke of her heartbreak at seeing the buildings that formed a part of her family history destroyed.
“My aunts and a lot of my cousins went to Morningside as well, and they’re all very upset. It’s a real core of the community. It’s a place that so many families are just so connected with. Their children are there and they extend their friendships into other groups — one large group (of Morningside families) do camping trips together every year.”
Several of Morningside State School’s heritage-listed buildings were destroyed in the blaze. (Supplied)
Ms Duncan said her class of 5 and 6-year-olds were encouraged by their prep teacher to refer to themselves as the class “family”.
“To feel that bond and connection, and to want to support each other and love each other and help each other, that’s so important to this teacher’s philosophy. And that’s extended through by a lot of teachers at Morningside,” she says.
Ms Duncan said the response of the wider community to Morningside fire had made the loss far easier to bear, and spoke to the sense of community that schools both fostered and relied upon in equal measure.
“[Neighbouring school] Bulimba hosted all the teachers us on Tuesday so that we could be briefed on the plan going forward. They were so supportive — they had coffee and croissants ready for us in their staff room, and the principal took us on a tour of the school. The children showed us their garden and presented us with a potted Marigold to acknowledge our tragedy.”
While the acrid smell of burnt plastic and wood lingers over the site itself, the impact of the Morningside school fire is being felt suburbs away. (ABC News)
‘I didn’t expect to see this in the city’
While with the smell of burnt plastic and wood lingering, the impact of the Morningside school fire is being felt suburbs away, and revealing the strength of ties that bind people together — even in a big city, and in the modern age.
A neighbouring public high school has made room for an extra 480 Morningside students until their schoolgrounds are declared safe. So while the children of Morningside return to their lessons surrounded by the unfamiliar rhythm of high school life, the feeling is one of strength in numbers.
Other schools and organisations have offered use of their grounds and facilities for Morningside’s many associated community groups and sporting clubs, with a nearby primary school asking if the Morningside Flyers swim club would like to use its pool for a postponed carnival, and extra hands to help run the event.
Brisbane Broncos player Corey Oates surprised the children with a guest appearance at a school assembly on Wednesday morning, to lift their spirits and accept the love of this most short but parochial of crowds.
Bronco surprises the Morningside children a day after they were displaced by the fire at their school. (Supplied: Nova 106.9)
Donations and offers of help are flooding in, and not just for a patch-up job, but the kind of concrete help — peoples’ time and effort — that makes even resilient communities such as this even stronger.
The news came through this week that Morningside can still hold its annual school fete, which had been scheduled to take place on the school grounds in two weeks’ time. Now, thanks to gracious hosts Balmoral High State School, who have offered their grounds, it is likely to be bigger and better, raising much-needed rebuilding funds.
A woman who lives across from the school, but does not have children attending, said on Tuesday that the outpouring of grief and sense of community reminded her of the scene in her former home, Dalby in regional Queensland, when the school there burned down.
“I didn’t expect to see this sort of thing in the city, to be honest, but the community appears to really be coming together.”