RINGGOLD, Ga. - A long line of wide-eyed eighth-grade boys and girls walked from their brand-new school gym Wednesday morning into the parking lot that divides Ringgold Middle School from the high school.
As the students passed an empty lot -- where their school building was supposed to be this year -- and headed to the gleaming high school, they whispered anxiously.
"I heard the roof got ripped off," a girl whispered, glancing at the field.
Led through the high school cafeteria, the students looked around nervously, watching their new upper-class schoolmates gathered in small groups.
The tornado-ravaged Ringgold middle and high schools finally reopened Wednesday after a four-month, fast-paced rebuilding effort and after a surprise delay Tuesday from a 10-inch downpour.
As the 8 a.m. bell rang, excitement ran high for teachers and students finally returning to some sense of stability after the tornado plowed through their city April 27, wrecking homes, businesses and both schools.
But first-day jitters were multiplied for eighth-graders who would be starting classes at the high school a year early, since their building had to be demolished and will take all year to rebuild.
High school officials say it will be a challenge to pack 250 new students into an already full school, but they've created a system that should work.
And the eighth-graders hope they don't get swallowed in their new environment.
"I was nervous at first," said 13-year-old Lexi Bennett. "I'm in a high school with big kids."
At the front of her classroom, Britany Clarke stood at the whiteboard. As she explained to her eighth-grade students that they will eat lunch at the high school, a hand in the front row shot up.
"Will they bully us?" he asked.
"Nobody else will be with you at lunch," Clarke assured him.
"We're going to get lost," another student in the back of the room whispered.
Many seemed anxious about sharing space with high schoolers for the first time. But teachers assured students that they still would be a part of the middle school and have a separate bell and lunch schedule.
Before the academic year began, eighth-grade teachers were given a section of the ninth-grade wing -- four classrooms on the first floor and four directly above -- where the students could be kept separate.
The students will join the other middle school students for assemblies, pep rallies and other school events, officials said.
On Wednesday, when it was time to switch classes, bewildered students clung to paper schedules looking for where they were supposed to be. Teachers in the hall gently reminded them to look for the number on the classroom door.
Middle School Principal Mike Sholl wandered the halls, too.
"I want them to know I'm still around," he said.
While the new arrangements will be a challenge, teachers are grateful their students won't have to spend their last year of middle school in a mobile trailer, Clarke said.
The students have to get used to not being the "big kids" at the school, eighth-grade English teacher Kimberly Ingle said.
"Now they're the little fish in a big pond," she said.
As the clock struck noon, nearly 500 high school students filed through the cafeteria headed to their afternoon classes. Students on their way to lunch pushed against the crowd along the opposite wall.
It will be a challenge to find room for all the students during lunch, said Ringgold High School Principal Sharon Vaughn. The eighth-graders were given one of the three time slots for lunch, creating much larger high school groups.
As the students filed in, they plopped their books and backpacks on tables to save a spot. When students were finished eating, teachers asked them to make room for others.
"This isn't normal for how crazy it is," said Anna Cashon, a senior, wearing a black shirt underneath her jacket with "senior" splashed in blue letters.
From the corner table facing the blue- and gold-striped wall, Cashon looked around and laughed.
"Everybody is upbeat," she said.
At 6:30 a.m. Wednesday when Vaughn drove to the high school, parents were waiting to drop off their children.
Both the high school and middle school had to be completely remodeled and most classes rebuilt at record speed. Catoosa County Schools and city officials pushed to have students back in a normal routine by the beginning of the year. But the summer schedule had to be extended until the day after Labor Day for that to happen, officials said.
On Tuesday, when the school couldn't reopen as planned because of unexpected flooding from the remains of Tropical Storm Lee, Vaughn got a widely negative reaction from students.
"[They] thought it was a practical joke," she said with a laugh.
Incoming freshman Morgan Watters said she couldn't believe when she got the text that school would be canceled.
"I was excited to get back," she said.
Seniors arrived to classes early, too, many wearing bright homemade T-shirts.
"Saving the best for last," several teenage girls had written on bright pink tops.
Outside the high school, seniors chalked their names and wrote notes in bright colors at the main and side entrances.
"Seniors live it up," was splashed in bubble gum pink letters.
"Mondays make me miss Chelsea," a sign near the door said, in honor of Chelsea Black, a junior killed along with her family in the April tornado.
"RIP Tex," was written along the other side of the door. Adam "Tex" Carroll, another student who would have been a senior, was killed along with his cousin, grandmother and great-grandmother.
Students ended last year on a difficult note, Pat Long, a Spanish teacher, told her sophomore class.
But this year in a new school, perhaps they can be reminded of all the possibilities to come, Long told them.