The Norman Transcript

August 11, 2013

Teachers of tornado-ravaged school searching for normalcy

By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Moore Oklahoma’s Briarwood Elementary staff faces the daunting task of transforming Emmaus Baptist Church into their interim elementary school after an EF-5 tornado flattened their school building, but the predominant feeling is gratitude.

Sixth grade teacher Amy Chase, her two daughters and 10 of her sixth-graders were sheltered with many other students and staff in Briarwood’s hallways when the May 20 tornado brought the building crashing down around them, miraculously causing only minor injuries and no deaths.

“Most teachers here have the mentality that they lived through something disastrous; our students lived and we lived, and we’re all just blessed and thankful for that, so we take one day at a time,” Chase said.

In the aftermath of the traumatic event, Chase said teachers’ and administrators’ top priority is to help their students heal by reinstating some sense of normalcy and familiarity.

“Many of our students have gone to Briarwood for years so we want them to come in here and know that things are going to be OK, and that this will be a good place to have school,” Chase said.

As Principal Shelley McMillin observed, each child’s emotional and mental state will be very different based upon what each of them experienced May 20.

“I spoke to a PTA mom whose two sons were (at Briarwood) during the tornado. Now, she said one son scares very easily with loud noises and yells at people to duck down if he’s startled by a sound,” McMillin said. “Her other son had a wall collapse on him and had the feeling of suffocating, so now he’s always concerned about where air is coming from in a new place, to make sure there’s enough.”

McMillin’s own 13-year-old son witnessed his school’s significant damage while sheltering in the gym at Highland East Junior High School, and she said observing his behavior from a mother’s perspective has indicated what needs she may expect in her students.

“We’ll have a therapist here to help our counselor address the needs or anxieties of students, teachers and families,” McMillin said. “In addition to the students’ trauma, some of our teachers are extremely overwhelmed by coming back to school since they spent 17, 18 or 19 years in building their classrooms, suddenly lost it all and are starting over like first year teachers.”

Teachers’ losses amounted to much more than just classroom decorations and art supplies.

“All my lesson plans — 15 years’ worth — and curriculum training are gone,” Chase said. “Over the years I saved those lesson plans and referred back to them, but all I have now is what’s in my brain. I’ll really be taking it one day at a time and trying to maintain a calm demeanor about it, otherwise we won’t make it through the day.”

Luckily, donations and charity initiatives have responded in force.

McMillin said neighboring Winding Creek Elementary teachers compiled and copied all of their lesson plans to give to Briarwood teachers.

Briarwood Elementary School in Florham Park, N.J., has adopted the Moore school and continues to mail teachers any needs they list on the school’s Facebook page.

“My entire classroom has been taken care of by donations,” Chase said, motioning to decorated bulletin boards, and decorations that already color her classroom just days after moving in.

“Donors Choose, Adopt-A-Classroom, Norman Public Schools’ loaned furniture and many area churches have taken care of each teacher here very well,” Chase said. “We even had volunteers who moved the furniture and supplies in for us.”

Students have been provided extra special activities and social gatherings throughout the summer, and the school also will receive a new playground on Emmaus Baptist Church’s campus, donated by Kaboom and Nike.

The response from communities worldwide and the resolution of Briarwood staff will keep Briarwood on the path to healing through the school year.

“It’s really been amazing to receive so much kindness,” McMillin said. “With so much to recover from, you can easily feel alone and isolated but this kindness reminds you that there are so many people out there who care.”