By Shana Adkisson
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Since May 20, Robin Dziedzic has been counting her blessings.
The fifth grade teacher at Briarwood Elementary School in Moore not only survived the EF-5 tornado that ravaged through the school, her two children Sam, 7, and Mari, 10, also were in the building.
Dziedzic was one of several teachers that huddled in a bathroom during the storm. Capturing the event on her cell phone, Dziedzic can be heard calming her students and telling them that the raging monster outside the walls of Briarwood was almost gone.
“We were just fortunate the school hadn’t been at capacity,” Dziedzic said.
Teaching at Briarwood since 2008, Dziedzic knew the proper procedures to take during a tornado. But that still hadn’t prepared her for the life altering events that Monday afternoon.
“I didn’t know what people listening to a weatherman knew. I knew to take cover. But it would have been more frightening to hear the specific weather report ‘If you are not underground you will perish’ and ‘It’s headed straight toward Briarwood.’ There were people at my school in the know and communicating to each building about that specific nature. But I did not hear that,” Dziedzic said. “One of the fifth grade teachers thought she was going to die before even going into the bathroom because it sounded really dire listening to the weather.”
Growing up in Kansas, Dziedzic is no stranger to tornadic activity. But still, that hadn’t made the events that unfolded on May 20 any easier to cope with.
“I just remember the entire time thinking, right up until the moment I cut loose with my scream, I was just, ‘keep them (students) calm.’ It kept escalating and escalating,” Dziedzic said. “I grew up in Kansas and there were times you wasted a little time in the cellar with grandma and grandpa and then you got out and drove across town to see the tree that had been upturned or a barn that had been knocked down. It wasn’t life or death. I’ve even been in homes where you’ve heard it go over your head. That had been my experience. I knew about ’99, I knew about Joplin, but until it happens to you, you just really don’t know.”
Dziedzic admits she started to first panic when parents began picking up students from school prior to the tornado.
“That was one of the initial things that caused me to panic was the vibe I was getting from the parents. People were frantic. That was my first tip-off,” Dziedzic said. “I was scared but it was kind of like, I share the analogy of a roller coaster, it kept feeling more and more serious. And as I started to question how this was going to turn out, I just thought ‘Don’t let on. The worst things you could do is let on to the kids to know that you are scared.’ And they were really pretty calm until the point we went into the bathroom. I felt bad for losing control, but it was kind of like being at the top of that roller coaster and I felt I wasn’t in control at that point and I was just hanging on, hoping for the best.”
Over the summer, Dziedzic has had a chance to keep up with her students, their families and her fellow teachers. Healing from the events of May 20 also have been difficult for the single mom as she’s tried to rebuild her teacher supply cabinet. But, through dark always comes light.
Beginning Friday, a new chapter in Dziedzic’s life, and the rest of the community of Briarwood Elementary School, will begin. The first day of school is always a challenge but this year will be an even bigger one as Briarwood’s classes will be held at Emmaus Baptist Church, 16001 S. Western Ave.
“I’m truly excited about this year. I know the fourth-graders that I will be getting went through something really traumatic.
“We feel really fortunate to have the location because we could be scattered all throughout the district. Anyone would be sympathetic, but people wanting to understand and truly understanding are two different things,” Dziedzic said.
Knowing that some Briarwood students who lost their homes are still living in hotels, Dziedzic feels that moving on with school will be a healing process not only for herself but students.
“I’m going to do lots of activities where they are going to get to tell their stories. There will be lots of reading and writing. I want my reading class to be a lot like book club group where we read together, we respond together. I’ve always been big into letting my students write about anything that they want. And they may want to write to take their mind off something. They may want to write to get something out. Anything they want to do is fine,” Dziedzic said. “I think if I were one of these kids, I would like being in that quiet classroom where I feel safe and secure and I know someone is with me who knows what I’ve been through and I can just sit and read a book or I can write about whatever I want. I hope that is appealing to them.”
The first day of school, Dziedzic said, will be more like a pep rally for students at Briarwood.
“I just want the kids to be excited and feel secure. I don’t think that’s going to be too hard to pull off. I think there will be a lot of good feelings to begin with. I do think that severe weather is going to be hard. My own son is scared when he sees the weatherman showing a map and saying there is going to be rain. He’s apprehensive,” Dziedzic said. “We’re excited that our numbers haven’t dropped that much. It’s going to be a year of transition. It’s going to be a countdown to that wonderful moment when the new Briarwood is built.”
Over the summer, Dziedzic has seen wonderful support from friends, coworkers, strangers and communities not only in Oklahoma, but other states as well.
“We have been given a lot. And that has made things a whole lot easier. Red Cross has helped and donations have come in from all over the country that have gone directly to Moore Public Schools. There is Restore Moore — Project Teacher, business have helped out. It has been amazing really,” Dziedzic said.
Dziedzic’s class also was showered with gifts from a classroom in New Jersey that her students had written to earlier in the year.
“I was able to give several gifts to each of the kids in my homeroom and several of the other fifth-graders who lost their homes. I had books left over. I feel so fortunate. I’ve been donated so many books, my problem is bookcases. Which is a good problem to have,” Dziedzic said.
But, the million dollar question on many students minds is will there be a place for recess at the relocated school? The answer, is yes. A group from Texas will arrive shortly after school starts to install not one, but two playgrounds on the campus of Emmaus Baptist Church.
“They (the playgrounds) will be left there as a gift to Emmaus for letting us use their facility,” Dziedzic said.