The metallic paint in the outline of a giant tiger shimmers 40 feet high in the new hallway. The floor shines with seven coats of wax. The 17 classrooms sit empty except for new desks, smart boards and projectors.
In a week, the spacious halls will be filled with 230 eighth-grade students, who will get to spend the second half of the year where they couldn't spend the first -- at Ringgold Middle School.
Nearly 20 months ago, Principal Mike Sholl watched his students huddle in the school's hallways as teachers checked their phones for tornado warning updates. Ultimately, the kids were dismissed early to wait out the storm at home.
There wouldn't have been a happy outcome if they still had been inside when the F4 tornado swooped through the town on April 27, 2011, taking homes, businesses, lives and both downtown schools.
At the middle school, much of the roof caved in, the air-conditioning vents fell through the floor and chunks of the building were swept away in the 250-mph winds.
For a time, Sholl wondered if this was a chance for the school to relocate and expand. But to the amazement of school officials, Ringgold High School and half the middle school were able to be salvaged, and workers sped through renovations to reopen for classes last fall.
Only the eighth-grade wing had to be demolished and rebuilt. Those students attended class at the high school in the meantime.
Officials created a new safety plan that included equipping the new building with inch-thick metal interior doors that will roll down from the ceiling when the fire alarm is pushed. The doors can cordon off the halls and protect students and teachers from flying glass or debris if the need should ever arise again.
When teachers and students walk through the double doors of the 41,500-square-foot eighth-grade wing on Jan. 7, Sholl hopes it will not only be a safer place, but a reminder to the town.
"It's a celebration," he said. "As devastating as that day was to our community and to our school, this is an equally great day."
The middle school is on Tiger Trail within walking distance of downtown eateries and stores. It's an integral part of the community. Students help place flags along the road for Veterans Day -- an attraction Ringgold is known for.
Sometimes kids are walked to the local eateries for a reward at lunchtime, and students in art classes help paint inside window panes around town, Sholl said.
Having the high school and middle school downtown can also help the students feel attached to their town, maybe luring them home after college.
When the middle school was completed in mid-December, it became one of the last places in town destroyed by the tornado to be replaced.
"At this point we're moving from something tragic to something special," said City Councilman Nick Millwood, who teaches at the middle school.
When Ringgold Middle School emptied that day in April, the sun was shining and the air was calm. Teachers didn't bother to pack up their laptops or other valuable supplies because they thought the worst had passed.
Students hugged their friends, expecting to see them the next morning.
It was Dare Schley's 12th birthday. She remembers being sung to that day in first block, and after early dismissal her parents took her to dinner.
So when the disaster happened, some students questioned where they would go to school. Kids normally counting down the days till summer break wondered what would happen next.
"I didn't know if they were going to rebuild," said Christian Bagley, who is now in eighth grade. "Or if we were going to have to go back to Heritage [Middle School], which I really don't like."
While the kids were assured the adults would rebuild, the rest of the town was grappling with change. The town lost eight people to the twister, including two high school students.
When homes started to be rebuilt and as businesses and dilapidated buildings were demolished, school officials were designing a $6 million section of the middle school with state-of-the-art upgrades.
In the end they built the new section of the school better than the rest of the county schools. The Catoosa Board of Education used insurance money, capital outlay and the county's local option sales tax to pay for it, said Doug Suits, the school district's director of operations.
The band room has acoustic wall panels and special ceilings. The young musicians will have practice rooms to improve their craft. The choir will have a gorgeous room, the art students a room with exposed red brick and windows facing the new football stadium and track. The three science rooms were built larger, the halls wider for student projects. Each classroom is equipped with white boards, smart boards and projectors -- a feature now in every Catoosa County school.
As completion of the wing neared, the eighth-grade students at the high school put up a board to count down the days until they would be back. These students who have been separated from the rest of their classmates say they are looking forward to being a part of their school again.
It's just the normal things everyone is excited about, said eighth-grade teacher Slade Queen, like seeing your students walking down the halls and kids knowing each teacher by name.
"A school is like a family; it will be nice to have everybody together," he said.
There is one spot at the back hallway where students still see evidence of what happened on April 27, 2011.
From the back windows, past the football field, lie hundreds of yards of downed trees where the twister turned and hopped over the ridge into Cherokee Valley -- a reminder that life is fragile.
Joy Lukachick is a crime reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing down ...
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