Brian O'Connell remembers the plays in the big auditorium at Scholars' Academy, the workout room outfitted by parents, the rows of computers, the winning teams, the honor society.
"We had pretty much 100 percent of the kids going to college last year," said O'Connell, the tall, fresh-faced principal of the school. "We had teams playing competitively around the city, an orchestra, plays on a top-notch stage."
The night Superstorm Sandy pelted New York, it took 15 minutes to lose it all.
"I look at the videos and I can't believe how quickly the water rose," O'Connell said early this month as he watched surveillance footage from the storm.
The water flowed from the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay, tainted by overflow from a nearby sewage treatment plant. The video shows water rising as if released from a spigot, sweeping through the front of the school, climbing up the front stairs and pouring into the basement boiler.
"The next time I got in there, my grand piano was floating," O'Connell said.
Scholars' Academy was one of 1,750 schools badly damaged by the storm, one of many still trying to clean up and rebuild weeks later. The nation's largest school system was so wounded by the storm that it shut down for days. Even when schools reopened, 73,000 kids were displaced from their regular buildings. The district had lost 300 buses to water. Repairs moved quickly, but by early December, 5,400 children were still being bused to temporary schools.
Scholars' Academy is one of 56 buildings that are so severely damaged they won't reopen until next year. More than half the school's students saw damage to their homes. All of them are now riding long hours to study in borrowed school spaces.
The academy is in Far Rockaway, a beach town on the far end of Queens. The school is blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, and from its roof, you can see the Manhattan skyline. Dee Dee Ramone, who combed the beaches here as a kid, famously sang about it:
The sun is out, I want some
It's not hard, not far to reach
We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach
The song was a big hit in the late 1970s; O'Connell, 45, still hums it sometimes. It was the story of his generation, the kids who grew up here, spending weekends on the sandy shore. Some, like O'Connell, stayed and built up the summertime oasis into an enclave where working-class families could own a bungalow, raise their kids and send them to good schools.
At least, that was O'Connell's plan.
"When we started, you should have seen this place," he said of the building now home to Scholars' Academy.
The school that used to be in his building had been shut down. The academics were terrible, and the hallways violent. O'Connell took over and invested seven years in building Scholars' Academy into a highly rated public junior and senior high school.
"Sandy came in and did a number on us," O'Connell said. "So now we have to simply take a step back and say, 'Well, we built from nothing before, and in some ways, less than nothing.'"
O'Connell's own home was damaged by the storm. His upper floors still have no power. His mother's basement apartment is beyond repair. Humidity is eating the walls. After the storm, O'Connell had no place to live, and no school left to run.
He moved into a hotel, paid for by FEMA, and was back at work the next day with a plan to put his school back together. Crews pushed forward, uncertain even now about when the school will reopen. There are bad moments, too, like when the school was looted after the storm, losing dozens of new iPads and computers.
O'Connell said he kept his composure until he saw the podium the parents gave him his first year. It was toppled and covered with sewage.