2020… right?!? What a bizarre year. We thought now would be a good moment to ponder some amazing schools, districts, and communities that have lived through their share of trying times and come out on the other side in a way that can provide some inspiration for us as we continue making our way through our own trying times.
Deep in the piney woods of far East Texas lies a small town called New London. With a population of only 1,001 (according to the census of 2018), you wouldn’t expect to find a monument towering thirty-two feet into the open sky. It almost seems out of place.
The quaint town surrounding the exquisite granite structure is a mix of buildings old and new. Buildings housing businesses have a very “small-town America” feel, while several of the school buildings are clearly beautiful, strong, long-lasting structures from the last century. There is room for the whole town in the four buildings, with some space to spare, leading one to imagine there was a much larger student population here at some point.
Yet, a quick flip through the books of history shows that in the late 1920s and early 1930s the total population count was about the same as it is today.
In the 90 years that bridge between, New London has quite possibly had the most extreme highs and lows any town could imagine. This little town has lived many lives in less than a century.
According to records from the time, in the 1920s, there were usually between 60 and 70 students in the one school building, which housed all grades. This in itself was a growth from the earliest school records from a one-room schoolhouse in the area with about 30 students.
But in September of 1931, the town experienced unprecedented growth and the number of students suddenly jumped to over 1,000
People flocked to the town in huge numbers because the largest oil reserve in the world had been found in this sleepy area of East Texas.
On the coattails of The Great Depression, the struggling little town of New London found hope in the form of oil. In this Boomtown setting, the local school system continued to grow until reaching a total of over 1,400 students enrolled for the 1935-1936 school year. There were two state-of-the-art, brand new, beautiful buildings built. One housed the elementary school, and the other held the Junior and Senior High School.
The town, the schools, and the district were flourishing. Money was abundant as oil flowed rapidly from a seemingly endless supply. The picture of New London in 1935-1936 tells every tale of rags to riches fame. It was the place to be. Life was happening in New London, Texas, and had we dropped through time into town at any point in that year, you would leave with the impression that a bustling, vibrant city would soon be growing roots in that very spot.
Unfortunately, what happened next would make all of that prosperity and hope become a brief, distant glimmer.
On March 18th the following year, just as the students at the Junior and Senior High School were getting ready to head home for the day, a pool of odorless, natural gas spread through the basement of the school where the shop class was meeting.
The shop teacher was working on an electric sander, which made a spark, which met with the gas.
And we all know what happens when natural gas meets a spark.
The hearts of every single family in New London, Texas could be heard shattering as, at 3:17 on March 18, 1937, the building that housed grades five through eleven exploded.
Nearly 300 students, teachers, and visitors were killed with just as many sustaining injuries. Only one corner area of the building, farthest from the blast, withstood the initial destruction at all.
No life was left untouched, and the future everyone had seen flourishing before them was suddenly gone, leaving a gaping hole in everything they’d thought to be solid ground an instant before.
We know that tragedy is not confined to time, space, socioeconomic status, or details of the affected. Age, for example, does not stop it, although the loss of the young brings a distinctly different pain than the loss of those whose life is filled with finished choices and hopes already met.
Money, political affiliation, skin color - there is no barrier that can protect us from some tragedies.
That school in New London had been built to withstand time, enemies from without, and any harm the structure might be pummeled with from the world.
There was no way, though, to know that the thing that would destroy it came from deep within, and held enough power to demolish half of a generation.
Our country, on the whole, was built with “good bones”, structure and laws that were built just as solidly.
And yet, we seem to be imploding in so many ways from the inside out. Some of the most seemingly innocuous things, like the electric sander that provided the spark needed for the explosion, have lent themselves to cause little sparks all over our country.
We have many leaks pouring through the small places in our foundations - some that have been undetectable for ages - and those are giving the flames all the fuel they will need for life.
Back in 1937 New London, moving more rapidly through time, we see that the children and adults who died that day were buried, mourned, and monumentalized.
The oil, we also know, eventually dried up.
The Boomtown fizzled back down, far fewer now living among the ghostly structures of dried up oil rigs and temporary homes built for temporary residents.
But before leaving, the school was rebuilt, along with the monument.
And in that place, it’s said that as the years passed, the children who remained, and the children who came after are treated as the treasures they truly are, and regarded irrefutably as the world’s most priceless resource.
But that’s not the end of the story.
The gas that was lurking in the basement of that building in New London was not detected because natural gas is both colorless and odorless. Fifty years before this tragedy occured, Germany began adding an odorant to natural gas so it would be detected before catastrophes like this one occurred, but the U.S. had been pushing this change off for years.
It took this horror for the U.S. to put that same action into law.
Sometimes change doesn’t come in the peaceful quiet. Sometimes, the world has to be shaken to its foundations before we realize we need to DO something - that change is the priority, and it has to happen right away.
As a result of the loss of these lives, less than five months later an odor was added to U.S. natural gas that has since saved at least as many lives as were lost. Some say the lives saved thanks to these changes number well into the thousands.
It doesn’t undo the past.
It doesn’t heal the pain.
But it does add value to the loss.
It does - it did - offer hope to those who lost so much.
Teaching virtually may or may not feel tragic to us, but I think it’s safe to say that our frustration and pain are not on the same level as that of those in New London, Texas in 1937.
But we can be validated in knowing every grief counts, and we have lost so much this year. Our cumulative losses from illness, from injustice, and from financial and mental representations are many.
If we can learn one thing more from New London, it would be what happened in the moments, hours and days after that dreadful spark.
Every soul for miles and miles dropped everything, turned toward danger, and ran into the unknown.
Children from the elementary school, farmers from the fields, housewives, the town’s elected officials, business owners, migrant workers, and oil tycoons fled the relative safety of whatever they were doing and united in a cause.
Just as we did in March.
This will, too.
Your investment, your pain, your loss, and your frustration don’t have to be in vain.
We have not lost this generation of children.
As long as there is life, there is hope.
So allow this story from our nation’s past to guide your future as you make tomorrow’s history.
Today, you could walk into a school in New London not knowing its past, if you had somehow missed the giant monument on your way there, and you might feel the difference in the air. But chances are, you’d overlook it.
You’d see a school in a lovely building that is pretty standard, as schools go.
And maybe that is the most meaningful legacy - normalcy.
For a town known for extreme “good luck” as well as our deepest collective tragedy, any normalcy you see has taken nearly a full century to achieve.
All things come to an end.
And that hope is the hope we can all cling to. A new “normal” may not be exactly like our old normal, but in time, balance will return, and we will find normalcy. Nothing can stop that from happening.
Eventually, we will have some normalcy again.
New London, Texas is for most intents and purposes, just another little city in our vast landscape as a country. New London is going through all the same things we all are. New London is just “one of us”.
And we are strong, brave, and filled with potential.
Along with New London, we will always remember.
We have hope.
For more information about the explosion in New London, Texas, what remained, and what is there now, see the following links:
The town’s museum:
The website for the school district which incorporates the schools in New London today with several nearby small cities and towns: