May 18, 2011

A deafening silence - AKA the day of the tornadoes

It's been a while since I have shared a good book on here with anyone, and I have read quite a few recently. Quite a bit has happened since April 15th, my last entry. The community in which I teach was devastated by the April 27th tornadoes. I had been weather aware for a couple of days. We were warned that what happened to the community was going to happen; the problem is we have been warned before with nothing coming to fruition. That was not the case on this day.

That morning began with tornadoes and ended the same way. School was delayed because of the storms coming in, and as I was a half-mile from arriving at school, the sirens were going off. Let me tell you where I do not want to be when a tornado siren goes off – the car. I drove to get to the parking lot as fast as I could because my husband told me it was in my area. I ran into the building just in time to see students being ushered in from the parking lot, students who were “just hanging out” while the sirens were going off. After all, how many other times had they heard the sirens?

I was able to hold a lesson together for one group of students; they were awesome. They went with the flow, were calm, and okay with what we were doing. By the time my third period came in, it was announced that we would send the kids home at 12PM, a time that would be too late. At around 11:15 the weather took a turn for the worse in our area. A co-worker came in and said, “Crys, wanna see something?” When I went out, I looked up and saw the clouds moving in one direction. When I looked ahead, I saw clouds moving in a different direction. In the middle, a big, beautiful, sun-filled hole…which quickly turned into a tornado on the ground. Students and teachers took cover, books covered heads, the building shook, lights flickered, the computer screen blacked out saying only “signal lost”, and round one was done. Not even a half-hour later we were in position for round two, and by the time the two rounds went through, it was too late for students to leave campus. Damage was already being reported from all around the area. The roads were blocked with trees, and it was a safety hazard to allow students on those roads. And thus began the waiting game…what time would we be able to leave the building.

After all, the worst was still yet to come.

The lunchroom provided chicken, biscuits, chips, and milk to all the students and all the workers in the building. It took a lot of patience from everyone, but we made it through and out. I was so proud of my students, who stayed calm the entire time. I, on the other hand, kept receiving texts from everyone telling me I needed to get out of that building because, as it was put to me, "Do you realize what is coming?" At the time, not in the least. 

I was able to leave campus around 3:30 or so, arrived home around 4:10, and as I closed the garage door the sirens started again. They were consistently going off for hours. This could be a hyperbole, but it did indeed feel this way. I am not sure if the storms had passed or if the sirens stopped because the power went out. All I know is that I was already aware that many of my students and coworkers were without power. This meant they were not able to see radar, so I began posting as much information on Facebook as I could. I knew many of them would use their phones for communication purposes, and I kept cranking it out because I was not sure if they had sirens with the power out in their areas.

The very last thing I read/heard before losing power was "Tornado emergency in Harvest." Let me tell you what two words should not ever be put in a sentence together, much less using one to modify the other. I had power long enough to Facebook that phrase to my FB friends and then the power was gone. I spent that night scared out of my mind. I could not sleep; I was sick with worry; I could not reach the outside world to know if everything was okay. All I knew was that there was a tornado emergency, and it was headed right for my school and right for my students and right for many of my coworkers.

When I was finally able to have outside communication via the radio, the reports were not good. Fatalities had been reported already and so many were injured. I just knew, with teaching 170 teens, that some of them were going to be my kids. I diligently listened to the radio and borrowed my neighbor’s paper, trying to find out if any of my kids were injured, lost their homes, or did not survive. I hunted down phone numbers and was able to text three of my students. The first text went out about 1:30AM. I was never so glad in all my life to hear my phone ding with a text message; I think it was around 3:15 AM or so. BUT, it was one my students replying that she was okay. That was the moment I allowed myself to go to sleep for the first time since the power went out.

For days afterward I posted furiously on Facebook begging for information about my students; I put my cell phone number out there begging them to text me that they were okay, that their homes were okay. I just needed to know. There was no television, there was no Internet, there was nothing but the radio. The radio was amazing, but it could not put me in touch with my kids, and at that point they were my #1 priority.

I do not believe I have ever been so scared in my entire life; if I felt that away nineteen miles away from the destruction, what was it like for them to watch, experience, and help those who needed it? It is a horror they will always remember, whether it affected them directly or indirectly.

People don’t realize that for teachers, this is our worst nightmare. Our school becomes the safe-haven away from the destruction, but the kids bring all of their scars with them; we see the breakdown, the difference, the light leave their eyes.

Our first day back in class – literally seven days later – was spent discussing and healing. I want to say this—on April 27th lives changed forever in a variety of ways, but do you know what my students wanted to focus on during our three-hour talk? They wanted to focus on all the good they saw around them. They wanted to tell stories of kindness, of helping others, of community, and, as one my students said, proof of “southern hospitality.” I did have a student whose home was a total loss, and to hear her story just broke my heart. I cannot imagine being in that situation and having the type of attitude she had. Of course, she had seven days to come to grips with it, to realize that while the house was lost her family was okay.

All day long there were stories upon stories told – it was a day of remembrance for us all because for that one day, we were one. While the community continues to build, there is a lot of healing left. But, at the very least, the kids are up for the challenge.

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