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Monday, August 5, 2013

Tornado Season

When the sky turns iridescent greenish-brown, you know, even before you hear the alarms, that a tornado is imminent. Suddenly the annoying monthly ‘First Wednesday’ siren practice and the embarrassingly poised duck-and-cover drills have taken on a new and worthy status. It’s the moment we’ve been preparing for. Get ready.

They don’t happen often, but they do occur with enough regularity to make the preparation hoopla worthwhile. I’ve seen them here with my own eyes—most memorably after an arrival at DFW airport while driving back to Denton. I watched as it moved away, seemingly-slender tornado-tail twitching and twisting like that of a peeved cat.

We’ve been very fortunate through the years.
So many communities cannot say the same.

Earlier this year, Granbury was pummeled by a mile-wide tornado. In fact, I wrote this story the day before the one in Moore, Oklahoma swept away half the town.

Last spring, the sirens sounded at the same moment that the principal announced over the intercom that we should get into position. We’d only just practiced the procedure the previous day, so everyone knew this was not a drill. The students in my charge were visibly shaken. Over half of the 26 kids in my afternoon class were new to the district, and they hailed from faraway places. Many probably had more experience with tsunami drills and avalanche practices than tornadoes.

Tornado season was just about the only time I was ever appreciative that my classroom did not have any windows. While the sky can be a huge visual distraction and source of anxiety during intense weather, rain and hail against the metal roofs commonly seen on Texas public buildings create a ruckus during storms that can be equally agonizing, particularly if you have a powerful imagination.

Already doubly-disadvantaged, due to visual and volume distractions, classrooms with windows (and those rooms that were adjacent to those with windows) are required to move to a designated safe zone closer to the center of the building. Can you imagine having to duck and cover on the floor in the boys’ bathroom?

For windowless rooms like mine, the protocol was as follows:

1.       While the kids are lining up in duck-and-cover position with their heads tucked and practically touching the walls, the teacher opens the door and does a quick hall-sweep to pull errant students to safety.

2.       The teacher then returns to the room and secures the area, making sure that every student is in a safe location and proper position. (Never allow anyone to duck and cover beneath a desk, a table, or anything else that could collapse and/or crush someone!)

3.      Everyone maintains the position and waits until we receive specific orders to stand down. (Or, until we get blown away, I guess. Until now, I'd never allowed myself to consider that possibility.)

My students were hunched and snuggled against each other so tightly that they reminded me of newborn puppies at their mother’s side.

One of my students—Noelle, an avid worrier, like myself—had just returned to school from an extended medical absence. She’d undergone a ten-hour back surgery and wore a brace daily. Everyone was under strict orders to give her enough space so that she’d never be jostled.

Noelle definitely couldn’t join the litter of wriggling pups. We quickly discovered that she couldn’t duck and cover very easily either, due to the brace.

She was petrified.

The sirens continued wailing in the distance. This was the longest they’d ever been on continuously, or at least it felt that way.

I helped her ease down to a modified duck-and-cover against a separate wall from the others, and I promised her that no matter what happened, I would protect her. I meant it. If a twister tried to blast through this classroom, I’d have fought to keep those kids safe with every fiber of my being.

When you are in this situation, you must only think about the kids in front of you. You must dedicate every thought and prepare every reflex for saving their lives. You must trust with your whole heart that your own children’s teachers are doing the exact same thing at that moment.

I did not think about Amanda at the high school all the way across town.
I did not think about Hannah at the middle school two miles away.
Or about Caleb, at the elementary school next to Hannah’s school.
I tried to push away thoughts of Mia at the preschool/daycare center less than a block from my own school.

That last one was the hardest one to not think about, though, because the classrooms and corridors in the preschool are made entirely of glass. Where would they go, and how would they get all those toddlers to duck and cover and not freak out? And the babies’ nurseries—how would they get all those little babies—at least 30, some as young as six weeks—to a safe place quickly?

Suddenly, the sirens stopped.

There was a ripple of movement as the kids repositioned, tentatively stretching legs straight out behind themselves and re-tucking, flexing shoulder-blades, turning their heads to make eye contact with one another as we waited for the all-clear announcement to arrive over the intercom. Within moments, the kids were back in their seats, and we tried to resume the lesson.

The sirens returned, then the announcement. Back to the wall.

“Bring your novels,” I advised
Who knows how long this’ll continue, I thought.

This time when the sirens suspended and the announcement granted reprieve, the kids sat up and tried to read. Nobody bothered to return to their usual seats—I guess we all sensed it wasn’t over.  A few complained of dizziness—no doubt a head-rush side-effect of maintaining the position, so I offered to read aloud to them from the book we’d been reading as a class.

Twice we were interrupted by office aides—one to notify us that one of the students was being dismissed, and one trying to locate another student for another early dismissal. The second kid must have gotten caught up in the hall sweeps. Certainly she was safe, it was just a matter of finding her. All systems have their flaws, and our emergency plan prioritized safety above everything else.

Twenty minutes remained until the school day would conclude. A different voice entered the room through the intercom. “We have a list of students who are being dismissed. Please listen for your name.”

“Or something that sounds a bit like your name,” I chimed in. The cultural diversity at our campus was astounding, which meant that the name-pronunciation was challenging.

And then the sirens started screaming again.

Dismissals meant parents and possibly younger siblings were in the front office, and cars were presumably parked in the bus loading lane in front of the school. I hoped no siblings were waiting in those cars. It was understandable that the parents wanted their children released to their own protection, but the safest place for everyone in that moment was inside in a designated area, ducking and covering. The classroom was far more secure than the family smartcar.

What a mess.

The sirens ceased, but there was no announcement. We were shrouded in a blanket of eerie silence, compounded by the lack of background noise. The power had briefly blinked off earlier, so the usual hum from the computers was temporarily absent. This wasn’t a big deal, but I did find the lack of communication a bit unnerving. With the day’s end so close, it almost wasn’t worth powering up my computer, anyway.

Because I was blessed with an adult assistant that day, I knew my students would be safe and supervised, so I made the decision to venture out and check on my colleagues and their students in case they needed anything.

The intercom communication resumed, and names were being read and maybe botched for what seemed like an eternity.

I’d checked in with four nearby classrooms when the sirens returned.

As I hurried back to my own classroom, I glanced out the hallway windows and saw that the sky was black. Not the usual tornadoey electric greenish-brown. Black like midnight.

What did that mean?
Was the tornado close?
Was the end near?

We were now ducking-and-covering past the official end of the school day, and the kids were becoming panicky. My assistant crawled over to where I was crouching protectively over fragile Noelle and whispered that while I’d been gone, she’d spoken to the kids about home safety since upon dismissal many would be arriving to empty houses until parents returned from work later that evening.

Wasn’t that smart of her? I don’t think that would have ever occurred to me.

“There’s a problem, though,” she continued, whispering even more quietly, “it might not be a big deal, but I thought I should tell you. When I explained to them about choosing a small, safe place on the first floor, George said his house didn’t have a first floor—it only had a second floor.”

Sweet George, new to the school district, had arrived with more baggage than most—profound learning disabilities and medical issues involving a seizure disorder. His father worked out of state, and his terminally ill mother had passed away less than two weeks earlier.

I was so glad she’d told me. If this was George’s current mindset, this was certainly a big deal.

My assistant took over my protective post of Noelle, and I crawled over to the wall and parked myself next to George in the puppy-line.

“I think we need to call my dad,” he said immediately. He was trembling; I hoped it was from fear and not from the start of a seizure.

“Well, you’re right, we might need to,” I said. I hoped we wouldn’t need to, though. It seemed particularly cruel to worry an already-grieving father who was eight hours away with news of a storm that could potentially kill us all or skip over us completely.

My voice wasn’t as confident as it had been earlier, and I hoped George didn’t notice. “Who’s taking care of you at home right now?”

“My relatives. They came for the funeral, and they’re staying with us for a while.”
“Maybe we could call them,” I suggested.
“We can’t. I don’t know their phone numbers. They don’t speak English, anyway. I’m so worried about them—they probably don’t understand what’s happening right now. The sirens…” He trailed off for a moment, then composed himself, “They’ve never had this kind of weather before, either. They won’t know what to do.”

The principal’s voice thundered across the intercom system granting us permission to move about in the classrooms. The school buses would be delayed until the storms had definitely passed, but everyone else could be released to parental custody. Students scrambled to power up cell phones and make contact with their parents. A line formed to use the phone at my desk.

“I’m usually a walker, can’t I just go home with my best friend and his mom?” asked one boy.
“Absolutely not,” I told him. Heck no! I thought. His mom was an elementary teacher at a nearby school, and I knew she had her hands full with her own students. She needed to be able to count on me keeping her son here and safe.

George tugged my sleeve. “I think we need to call my dad. My relatives will worry if I’m not home by 3:45.”

More names were being rattled off over the intercom. I glanced at my watch. It was 3:40. I knew what I had to do. I knew I would probably get in trouble, maybe fired, but I didn’t care.

“Do you know how to get home?” I asked George.
I turned to my assistant.
“Do you feel comfortable supervising the students for a while?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said, and she placed her umbrella in my hands. Because she was amazing and intuitive and magnificent about anticipating things, she already knew what I was going to do. “Be safe,” she whispered.

To her, I gave my thanks and promised to be back soon. To George, I gave directions to gather his things. We’d head out the side exit. “But the front is closer to my house,” he said.

I explained that even though I knew what we were about to do was the right thing, I wasn’t sure my bosses would agree. We needed to be subtle and fast.

The sky was still inky dark, and the umbrella created a reasonable disguise, hiding our faces as we navigated across the school yard and through the mess of cars arriving to pick up other students.

George was probably mortified when I held on to his elbow as we crossed the street. Can’t turn those mom-reflexes off. He was lucky I didn’t grab his hand.

Every ten feet or so, he’d say, “Okay, we’re pretty close. I can go alone from here.”
“Sorry, kid. I need to see you safely inside your house. I need to make sure the relatives are there and that everybody is okay.”

Moments later, we stood before a lovely brick one-story home, and I rehearsed the safety procedures for the evening with him.

“What will you do if you hear the sirens?”
“Get all the pillows in the house and take them and the relatives to my dad’s bedroom closet.”
“Good.” I knew they’d be okay.

He ran up the walkway to the house. The relatives flung open the door and flung their arms around him. He turned and we exchanged thumbs-up signs.

Right then, the sky opened up and I raced back to the school.


Everything from that point on is a foggier memory, maybe because the adrenaline rush had worn off.  At some point we were allowed to leave school for the evening, and Russ and I went off to gather up our own children.

Memories from the rest of that evening are fragmented, twisted, and partial…

All four kids, sharing their feelings and fears about the afternoon’s events.

Hannah, telling us about her frustration of watching several friends be dismissed to the custody of her best friend’s parent, how at first she felt so left out, but how she later realized that she’d much rather be in the safety of the school and the supervision of her teachers than home alone, worrying and wondering.

Russ, confirming that we would have been livid had she been dismissed to the friend’s parent, explaining how desperately we depend on them being where they need to be in order for us to focus on the kids in front of us.

Mia, explaining about the “mat sandwiches” that the teachers made to protect the kids—padded layers above and below them--as they waited in the cafeteria, while the babies cried and the teachers sang and rocked them.

Praising the kids for following directions at their respective campuses.

Downplaying the threat in an attempt to soothe lingering worries.

Deliberately ignoring the television. Avoiding turning it on, even, in an effort to move past the drama.

Attempting to make the evening as normal as any other.

Tipping our hand to the emotional exhaustion by making frozen pizza for dinner (“But it’s not even Friday!” the kids had protested.)

Leading them out to the backyard to see the evening sky as it gradually brightened, pinky-golden dawn-at-dusk, to prove that the danger had passed.

Supervising homework, reading stories, compelling bedtime routines as scheduled, still without ever turning on the television to see the local news.

Hugging them extra-tight before tucking them in.

Realizing that we each had at least ten messages stacked up on our phones from friends and loved ones asking if we’d survived.

Wondering—somewhat guiltily—for the first time that night, if the twisters had struck someone somewhere nearby.

Tuning in to the ten o’clock report of nearby devastation with that almost-shameful feeling of relief.

Whispering to one another, “That could have been us. We are so blessed, again.”

Sleeping fitfully, reliving the day’s events throughout the night.


The following morning, we arrived at school. It was business as usual as we all moved forward with our day. The faculty received an email mid-morning from the principal, praising the staff for the previous day’s performance and thanking everyone for their help during the crisis.

A few he thanked specifically, sharing personal anecdotal examples of the responsibility the teachers had shown. He even mentioned me—how I’d braved the weather to ensure a student arrived home safely. Chagrin spread through my soul—I’d been so certain that I’d avoided witness, so convinced that I’d be reprimanded.

The principal acknowledged that there were some procedural things we’d need to revise and that there were opportunities to improve based on the experience. Everyone read the message and carried about like any other day.

This is how it would continue, until next time.
There’ll always be a next time.

I’ve had this story moving in my mind for over a year now, but I was reluctant to record it because I didn’t want it to be scrutinized or cause de-facto consequences to resurface. It was a good story, an important story, and one that needed to be told. Not because I’d been heroic (I hadn’t) but because this is part of our everyday lives.  People here must be ready to take action when the moment arises. The same protective actions I’d taken were happening in all the other classrooms of my school, and all the other schools in our community.

I wasn’t uniquely brave, either. Nobody is afraid during those moments. Even if you spend most of your life fearing far less destructive things, like rollercoasters and germs, fear is not an option during intense weather. Your energy and your thoughts are consumed with protecting the ones in your care.

Schools, daycares, hospitals—maybe even prisons—depend on the courage and responsibility of the employees. All of these community helpers have stories of their experiences in these kinds of situations.

With regard to this day’s events, although my perspective is limited to my own role, my belief is that we all did the best we could, which is all that can be asked or expected in an emergency situation.

Tornado season is an acceptable risk for everyone who has chosen to make homes here. The landscape and weather can be hostile, but the people are reliably strong, courageous, and compassionate. This reward in the humanity is worth the risk. Texas attracts survivors—it was founded by survivors—and the spirit of survival is in our land and our blood.

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