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Sue Carlton: But Lee (formerly Robert E.) Elementary was supposed to keep evolving . . .

By Sue Carlton
Luis Santana | Times
Aerial view of the damage at Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies & Technology this week.

The morning after one of the most beautiful buildings in Tampa went up in flames, people gathered around it in disbelief — teachers, parents and neighbors who unabashedly love Lee Elementary School.

Some of them cried at the sight of it: This historic and stately red brick building with its white pillars, gleaming wood floors and the kind of windows they don't even make anymore, sprawled along a hardscrabble stretch of Columbus Drive in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

Now much of the roof is gone, the facade charred, the smell of smoke heavy in the air. Gone.

Rochelle Hayes, an after-school program instructor at Lee for going on three years, watched from the sidewalk. "Hurricane didn't scare me at all," she told me. "This here was more devastating to me."

You think: How is it even possible? How could a building that stood solid for more than a century and survived so much, a place just now readying for kids to come back after the break for the hurricane, a school about to be the center of our latest Confederate controversy — how could it be no more?

This school evolved with the city around it, from Michigan Avenue Grammar to Robert E. Lee Elementary to its latest incarnation as Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies & Technology, which attracted kids from more than a dozen ZIP codes.

But the full name of the Confederate general still graces its brick front. Maybe it was about to evolve again, had the School Board eventually mustered the fortitude to officially rename it. Looks like we'll never know.

You don't want your mind to go there but it does, to whether the controversy over Confederate memorials simmering across the country could have had anything to do with the destruction of all that red brick history. You don't want to think someone opposed to the name, or opposed to renaming it, could have done anything so destructive and irreversible. Authorities were quick to say early on and more than once that the fire did not appear suspicious.

Teachers came the morning after in school spirit T-shirts that said EXCUSE MY POSITIVE ATTITUDE and STRAIGHT OUTTA LEE and FREE HUGS. They told stories. They worried that their 329 students — their Lee family, they said — might be scattered to the wind, to different schools. (Later that day, school officials announced Lee students and teachers would stick together at nearby Lockhart Elementary, a quick and thoughtful solution.)

On the sidewalk that morning, another teacher came rushing up with a sodden piece of fluorescent green poster board in her hands. A firefighter saved it, she said breathlessly.

The poster had an inspirational quote magic-markered on it, like dozens of other posters with similarly positive messages that teachers hung in the Lee halls, hoping the words might permeate young brains over the school year.

This one quoted, improbably, the 1960s-era comedian Phyllis Diller:

I wanted to become me, totally me. The more me the better. I instinctively knew this, and I was right.

The teacher held the poster up for everyone to see. They cheered and they snapped pictures on their cellphones so they would remember this, the Lee spirit still there.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]