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Opinion: I’m a teacher, and I don’t want to die with your child in a tornado

Rachel Williams Grimes is a tenth grade language arts teacher at Ware County High School. She says her passions are "students' rights and future visions."

She writes an eclectic and compelling blog you can find here. Grimes describes her blog as "stories from a complicated life." This is the most-read piece, about her granddaughter who was born with anencephaly.

Grimes sent me this new essay from her blog. In the piece, she addresses the complaints about school districts that either closed today or released students early because of the threat of tornadoes and violent weather. While at least four possible tornadoes swept through Georgia today, touching down in Newton, Randolph, Dodge and Webster counties, many areas were spared the severe weather that had been predicted.

With her permission, I am sharing the essay here.

By Rachel Williams Grimes

Dave Sanders was the first teacher to haunt me. I would wager that, although you have forgotten him, many teachers could instantly tell you, “He died in Columbine. His students held up his pictures of his family members as he bled out on the floor.”

Liviu Librescu’s name cannot be spoken with enough reverence: a Holocaust survivor, this professor chose to hold his Virginia Tech classroom’s door shut so his students could escape the raging gunman on the other side. Librescu died.

Twenty-seven-year-old Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto hid her small students in a cabinet and then faced down gunman Adam Lanza, telling him her kids were in the gym. Her students lived; their teacher died.

Third-grade teacher Jennifer Doan was pregnant when she heroically shielded her Oklahoma elementary school students with her body in a desperate attempt to save their lives during a 2014 tornado. Seven of her 20 kids died. 35%. Gone.

I can tell you about these teachers – and others like them – because I, too, am a teacher. Like bankers, who keep up with new federal regulations, and chefs, who learn about the latest food trends, teachers are constantly educated, too. We don’t wile away our days making cutesy bulletin boards and singing songs about friendship: we do real work.

And a large part of that work is making sure your children are safe. And so we continually think about what we would be willing to sacrifice for your child.

Before Liviu Librescu’s death in 2007, very few American classrooms could be locked from the inside. Teachers, during lockdowns, had to go out into the hall and lock their classroom doors. Most of us who taught before 2007 did this –grabbed our keys at the principal’s urgent voice, dashed into the hall as quickly as possible, hurriedly locked our doors, and ducked back in, saying grateful prayers that we were okay, having done our required duties – and kept your children safe.

My husband, also a teacher, was pulled from his classroom several years ago and told, “There’s been a bomb threat . . . look around for bombs.” Your children? Safe.

At the same school, he was also told that, if there was a fire, he was to “go deep into the building to see if any children were left inside.” As a teacher – not a firefighter – he was expected to display this level of de facto heroism. To keep your children safe.

I have hidden my autistic elementary school students in a bathroom while an angry man with a weapon roamed the campus. I have had a rib broken and rotator cuff torn by a student. I have been threatened by an angry, belt-wielding parent as I stepped between her and her child. I have dashed out of a prom carrying burning decorations. I have been brave for your kids.

Right now, though, I’m not being brave. I’m at home eating pimento cheese on Ritz crackers in my blue polka-dotted pajamas. School was called off early today because there was a chance of tornadic activity. So far, a drop of rain has not fallen, and our school system was ridiculed by a meteorologist on TV in the next major town.

That meteorologist has never been in a classroom. Taught 115 kids for 180 days. Pinned their homecoming boutonnieres on; visited them in hospital rooms after football injuries and car wrecks; held their hands in funeral homes after their relatives died; videotaped their promposals, having first been complicit in the hiding of the Teddy bears and Snickers bars. That weatherman has never been knee-deep in children.

I have been. I am.

For those of you who have not been, imagine this: you are single, but have a large brick home, and you are hosting a spend-the-night party for your son, Johnny. He has invited 30 friends, and they all said yes. Everyone is coming. You have assembled a bouncy-house, pre-ordered the pizza, and iced the homemade Power Rangers cake. You’ve rented a party bus to transport them to Chuck E Cheese for a night of fun. Imagine, then, just 15 hours before, you hear that a squall line with 60 mile-per-hour winds, large hail, thunderstorms, and perhaps tornadoes, too, is likely headed your way.

Your next move, of course, is to cancel the party.

It’s a no brainer. If parents insisted on sending their kids before the storm hit, you would lock the doors and hide. You would not let those kids in your house because they might get hurt. You would cancel the bus and forfeit the deposit because who wants to be on a bus with children in a tornado. Who would chance that? Who would make that gamble?

As a party host, you would assess the risk – you would think about your liability; you would consider how many things could go wrong. You would choose the wiser path.

Sure, a wind shift could result in you eating hypothetical cake alone under a sunny sky while people Facebooked about how foolish you were. However, the alternative hypothetical, with your son surrounded by seven of his best friends’ bodies and people still Facebooking about your idiocy – well, that’s too much to bear.

So, know this: of all the heroic teachers listed above – Sanders, Librescu, Soto, and Doan–only Doan could have possibly been spared her trauma. Her school system likely had two hours’ notice before the EF5 tornado flattened Plaza Towers Elementary. They stayed with their students.

I’m grateful I didn’t have to stay at work today in potentially dangerous conditions. Because I already knew about the pregnant teacher who tried to keep her students safe during a tornado.

Who broke her back and sternum.

Who lost seven students.

Who holds a baby in her arms named for a student who died – whom she felt die beneath her palm as they lay together, crushed in the rubble.

Most teachers, like me, already knew about her. Now, you do.

Please, tell me again about how this weather day hurt you.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.