The roads leading to Pleasant Grove Middle School are lined with toppled trees. National Guard trucks are idled in the parking lot, and packages of bottled water rest on the concrete nearby, unmistakable reminders of the devastation wrought by the tornadoes.
But inside the building, students who returned after a turbulent, heavy-hearted week away found something of a sanctuary, greeting each other with shrieks, bear hugs and giddy jubilation typically associated with the first day of school.
Which, in a way, it was.
"I was happy because I thought they had died," Sandrea McAlpine, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, said of some of her friends she hadn't seen. "I talked to some of them, but I didn't know if everyone was OK."
Schools across hard-hit Jefferson County reopened Tuesday, yet elsewhere, students were not going back to class, either because their buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. House Speaker Mike Hubbard said schools were destroyed in at least six different school systems, and Alabama legislators responded by passing a resolution promising to provide the money needed to rebuild the schools.
The Alabama House and Senate passed a resolution promising that the Legislature would make sure that all needed funds would be provided to rebuild schools. The resolution now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley for his signature.
It promises the state will provide whatever funds are needed to rebuild a school above whatever payments are made by insurance companies or federal assistance received.
The resolution says the state "will always be ready" to assist local school boards in rebuilding destroyed schools.
The storms killed 328 people in seven states, including 236 in Alabama alone.
Many of the roughly 420 students at Pleasant Grove Middle lost their homes, and have been staying with relatives or in hotels. About a half-dozen people were still camped inside one of the school's gyms, principal Jarvis Watkins said.
Nurses and counselors were on hand to help students, and for the day at least, pre-algebra and grammar lessons were shelved in favor of candid reflections on how the tornadoes upended young lives.
"To see friends walking on the streets looking for their personal items, to know you have friends who have lost loved ones, to not have a home to go to, it's pretty rough on a teenager," Watkins said.
In Zambia Harris's language arts class, students were asked to draw pictures summarizing the events of the last week. Some drew funnel clouds and toppled cars. One covered the paper with a giant frowning face, wet with tears.
Susan Burton asked her students to toss out words expressing how the tornadoes made them feel _ "distraught" and "devastated" were among them, but also "thankful" and "blessed." She had them write brief compositions and choked back tears when she told the students how proud she was of them for remaining positive.
"It could have been the other way," wrote 12-year-old Jayla Arrick. "I am going to stop complaining about every little thing because I could have been the one without a home or a life."
"I don't know why God did this," Brandon Bowman, 12, wrote in his essay, "but I know he had a plan."
Brandon Wilson, 13, and his family were staying with his grandmother in nearby Bessemer after their home in Pleasant Grove was destroyed by a tornado he likened to a train barreling down the tracks or a screaming roller coaster. His mother suffered a swollen eye and injured her shoulder.
Wilson lost his clothes, an autographed football, a Nintendo Wii system and all of his other belongings. The impact?
"Devastating," he said, quietly taking comfort in the greetings of friends who approached him in the gym before classes began.
"I'm just glad to be here," he said.