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Shelter From the Storm


Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."
— Bob Dylan

On Thursday, May 9th, in the early morning hours, a tornado ripped through 160 homes here in Stafford County, Virginia. At least 40 homes were destroyed. The damage is about two blocks from my school. Some of the devastated houses, of course, were our students’ homes.

We can see these houses from our playing fields. The roof was gone from some, others were missing the whole second story. Still others looked almost like doll houses, the rooms open and exposed with the furniture sitting oddly in order.

I got my first phone call before 7 a.m. Our gym and auxiliary gym would be called into service as provided for in our Shelter In Place Emergency Plan. This required an adjustment in the PE schedule and meant that school breakfast would not be served. Otherwise, Thursday would be Business As Usual at Gayle Middle School.

Business as usual, although administrators had been called in at two in the morning. As usual, except for the 125 people in the gym, many with nothing but the clothes on their backs, trying to get a little rest on the exercise mats spread out on the gym floor. As usual, except for the fire trucks, ambulances and Red Cross vehicles jamming our parking lot as the buses rolled in. As usual, except for the TV news teams landing helicopters on the football field. As usual, except for the representatives of major homeowner insurance companies arriving to meet with homeowners. As usual, except for the hundreds of phone calls being answered by our school secretaries. As usual, except for the loading dock outside the cafeteria, which became an emergency animal shelter for pets.

As usual, except that some of our students were homeless.

Morning announcements simply stated that, “We will be adjusting the schedule a little today. We have guests in our gym. Some of our neighbors had to leave their homes when the tornado hit. We’re going to be trying to help them out, so do your best to give them and the workers space and let’s have a good day.”

Our faculty and staff tried to use the tornado and its aftermath as a learning experience. The sixth grade curriculum is Earth Science. Seventh grade Civics and Economics could discuss the role of government in emergency situations. Eighth grade Physical Science classes could explore potential and kinetic energy. My seventh graders were completing their last cooking activity. Earlier we had talked about how food met social and emotional needs as well as addressing nutrition and appetite. They decided their chocolate chips cookies were comfort food, so they would each keep one and donate the rest to the children in the gym.

Afternoon announcements came on: “Thanks to all of our students and staff for their cooperation during some unusual circumstances. Let's all keep up the good work because we have our SOL tests coming up in another week. Be careful going home and stay away from the firetrucks on the way to the buses. We’ll see you in the morning.” It was close to five when I left, and administrators were still double checking to make sure all the classrooms were secured. Arrangements had been made for all but a few of the visitors in our shelter, and it looked like no one would be spending the night at school. Friday would be school as usual.

By Saturday morning I had watched the news, checked the Internet, and read coverage in the three area newspapers. This is what I noticed: There were lots of pictures of torn up houses and blue tarps. There were quotes from Stafford County’s public information officer, representatives of the Red Cross, and the Fire and Rescue Department. There was mention of the fire and rescue assistance from neighboring communities and even the assistance given by the ASPCA which provided crates for the pets of displaced residents. A local Congressman was photographed meeting with victims, assuring them that “We can put the houses back together, but what is more important is to be able to help put people’s lives back together.”

And our school? Well, Gayle Middle School was mentioned as the location of the emergency shelter where families who lost their homes were sent -- and the site for a victims’ information meeting. No one seemed to notice that school personnel were called out in the middle of the night. It didn’t strike anyone as impressive that we housed 125 tornado victims, provided resources for emergency workers, public officials and insurance representatives -- or corralled media teams while carrying on a normal school day for over 800 eleven to fourteen year olds. Of course, that wasn't the most important part of the story.

The thing is, those 800+ students needed normality, and school is the center that holds together when the rest of their lives are in chaos. We provided a "shelter" for tornado victims, but we also took care of our primary responsibility -- sheltering our students. We had school because our kids needed to be able to come to school.

It’s not that our efforts were not appreciated. I know they were. But over the weekend, I wondered why most of what we did didn’t seem worthy of special notice. It was on Sunday, Mother’s Day, that I had an epiphany. Schools are our community homes and like our homes, we expect a great deal of them. Mary Jean LeTendre, long-time national director of the Title I program, has said that “America’s future walks through the doors of our schools every day.” We presume the door will be open, and support will be provided for cultural programs, athletic events, community service projects, elections, and even emergencies.

Public schools are sort of a mother figure in our communities. When schools, like moms, are at their best, we hardly notice how much they do and how efficiently they do it. When schools do not meet the perceived needs of their community, they, like negligent mothers, are judged harshly.

On Mother’s Day we celebrate and honor our mothers who do so much, so willingly, with so little recognition. So here’s to our public education systems, which so often fill the same role for American society. As Charlie Brown put it, “A good education is the next best thing to a pushy mother.”


i love your story......our schools are the homes (safe havens) to many of our students. almost 20% of the children who attend my school are considered homeless. they arrive by taxi, city bus, car.......but seldom by schoolbus. i have learned over the years the meaning of "community" and the part we, as a school, play in providing for our own. for some it takes a tragedy, like your experience with the tornado, to understand the community outreach our schools provide. i am certain the children at your school learned much from their day as hosts and hostesses to those who had lost their homes. i am a true believer in providing life lessons to our children.....i know your children walked away from your school on friday with a new understanding about our world. i thank you and your staff for welcoming those in need. what your children learned on friday was far more important than the SOLs. now if we can only convince our government of that!

I live only a few miles north of you in Fairfax County and I had no idea that any of this happened. I read the paper and listen to NPR, but either I missed the coverage or it didn't happen. I'm shocked by that fact.

Your conclusions about our expectations for our schools seems right on, supported by the fact that we continually expect our schools to do more and varied things for the students, their families, and society in general. Most of the time we don't even notice it, but an event like this brings home all that is done by educators.

Wow. Can't let the SOL schedule get messed up. The winds may have stopped but I bet they'll keep blowing through your community for some time. Thanks for this poignant snapshot to remind the rest of us how fragile it all really is.

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