Spending time in the tornado shelter (or bunker as my California friend calls it) with my 600 or so middle schoolers, gives you a chance to use different teaching skills than you usually use. We were watching the Weather Channel at the start of 5th hour and saw these severe weather patterns developing off to the southwest of where our school is located. Then the loudspeaker intercom said..."Students and teachers this is not a drill. Please move students to the basement immediately." And about the same time, the tornado sirens started blasting outside the school.
We went to the basement and sat waiting for any word of what was happening. On my side of the basement, I had lots of the wiggley kids but they quickly realized that they better sit still as the adults were striding around and acting very serious. Somber is an understatement.
Right there and then I could feel tens and then hundreds of eyes looking to me for what to do and how to react. They were scared.
I walked up and down between the rows of kids smiling and telling them their job was to "breath in and out". Relax and stay calm. The principal and AP get paid all the big bucks to worry and they had special radios that the district provides to a special weather report. I thought this would help them relax because they knew their cell phones weren't working....remember we were in the basement...under lots of feet of concrete so signals weren't getting through. A lighthearted, casual attitude conveyed to them that we were going to be OK and not to worry.
One student asked me about her big brother who had just come home from college. She was crying because she knew he wouldn't hear the sirens thru the music he loved to play so loudly. I told her if her mom was like me...nothing would stop me from making sure my son was safe. I was sure her mom was no different and her mom would do what was best for him. She gave me a big hug.
Some girls started to tear up. It was my job to comfort them and re-arrange people so they were near someone who would be a comfort to them as I was walking around. I would just walk by and tell them to look at me and to remember that we were safe and someone was in control....we were in the safest place for miles around. They just needed me to bend down, smile at them and give them a little pat on the back.
Trying to get everyone stablized, I would get them to smile at me and ask them if they could be brave for another minute or two so I could go and check on someone else. They would nod and let me go. So brave when I knew what they wanted to do was to sob and just dissolve into a puddle.
And for my wigglers....I had to do something with them. They are big blabber mouths and 60 minutes of silence is brutal on them. So I tried to show them what they could do to be active in a quiet way...thumb war and rock, paper, scissors. Even doing that in a quiet way is tough...so they had lots to learn about being "subtle"...learning to play in such a way that not everyone in the whole room was watching them. Hard to believe that's what they learned while we were in our bunker....but it was what they needed.
Lastly were those pesky 8th graders...usually they are slippery and very reluctant to rise to the occasion. But I whispered to them that I would be counting on them if the lights went out. They were going to have to step it up and lead the way...not scream, be calm and show the littler kids how to stay safe. I told them that I would need them and that I meant it. And they rose to the occasion and they were everything they should be....calm and set excellent examples. Finally we were told, we could come up and that things looked much improved. Little did we know that Joplin was blown away. We knew we might have to go back, so we hurried back to our room and watched the weather updates. We were never in serious danger. The real damage happened miles from my school but it was scary.
And fortunately....as we looked out the window, the sun came out and everyone in my 5th hour class cheered. We all felt better and greatly relieved. I learned so much from those 60 minutes. I have brave little souls who will rise up to meet the challenges and I will miss them terribly when the graduate and go onto 7th grade.
pictures are CC licensed from http://www.flickr.com/photos/derohlsen/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/aussiegall/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/robnwatkins/