They say you can determine the measure of a person by watching how they handle adversity.
In the South we are trained to smile and be polite when someone asks how we are. Any given Sunday you will find our churches filled with people undergoing some kind of burden, illness or tragedy and calmly saying “I’m doing just fine. How are you?”
But let’s face it, when the screws are turned and the pressure is applied to our lives, that is when what is found on the inside comes oozing out. And sometimes it is not pretty.
So it was with a certain amount of envy and Chickasaw County pride that I watched residents of Houlka respond to the burning of the Houlka Attendance Center last week.
The good people of that community sprang into action shortly after lunch Wednesday as everyone in Houlka gathered at the old school to watch 70-years of memories and history be destroyed by orange flames and black smoke.
Center of community
Schools are the center of just about every community and Houlka is no different.
The people in northern Chickasaw County are very proud of their little school district and realize what it means to their town. It’s a major employer. It’s where they gather for major events. It’s where they send their children for an education.
I watched as the men of Houlka arrived in trucks and even on tractors to offer their help. The women of that town also showed up and carried water to firefighters and anyone busy at the fire scene.
And as with any death, those ladies soon started showing up with food to feed the tired and hurting. With the majority of the firefighting over by 5 p.m. the community gathered in the Houlka Gym to enjoy a hastily prepared meal and talk about their loss.
I also attended an emergency meeting of the Chickasaw County School Board where the first order of business was a prayer. And it was a prayer that went much further than the traditional plea to watch over the business of the district. The trustee offering the prayer thanked God that no one was hurt, she questioned why it happened but in the same breath admitted it was all in the Father’s hand and please give them patience and peace. And yes, she also prayed for divine guidance as trustees, administrators, teachers and students moved forward.
Superintendent Betsy Collums said Wednesday afternoon that administrators would reshuffle classrooms and Houlka teachers would rise to the occasion. She never said the start of school would be delayed or that Houlka children would suffer from this event.
While the community tried to grasp what would happen next, trustees were reminded that the Houlka Attendance Center was gone and they needed to provide the leadership and vision to put something new in its place.
I also heard contractors responsible for the fire come with their hat in their hands and humbly apologize for the accident.
Back at the scene of the fire, I counted 16 pieces of firefighting equipment there cooling down the hulk of a building that was once Houlka Attendance Center. Two days later school leaders in Houston told teachers gathered in their auditorium that if there was anything Houston School District could do to help teachers and students in Houlka, to please let them know.
You can also tell how good your neighbors are when disaster strikes.
When I got out of my truck Wednesday afternoon in Houlka I knew the school was gone.
I too, remember a building with pinewood floors, wooden rafters and asphalt shingles. It was all over in the first 10-minutes.
But my job was to report what I saw and tell what people said about this new event.
And I may have gotten my best quote in more than 25-years in this business:
“I graduated from this building, and my parents did, too,” said Shelly Collums, a Chickasaw County School Trustee. “We lost the building, but we didn’t lose the memories. Houlka will overcome this. We will rebuild.”
Please remember the official name is New Houlka. Residents of that town took that name years ago when they had the vision to move their entire town down the road to be closer to the new railroad that was being built through the woods of North Mississippi.
Houlka was squeezed hard last week and it did hurt.
But the good people of New Houlka have shown us once again what they are made of. There should not be a doubt in anyone’s mind they will overcome.