Disaster 101: 'We All Lost Something'

Article excerpt

The 19th started out like any other April day in Oklahoma. Students and teachers alike anticipated the coming weekend and summer vacation, which was right around the corner.

The sun was very bright as I pulled into the Putnam City High School parking lot. Parents were dropping off their children. I noticed a red car that had stopped in front of me. One of my students, Jennifer, stepped out. It was obvious that Jennifer was not happy with her mother by the look she gave her--that familiar cold-stare-with-squinted-eyes that teenagers often direct at their parents, or even their teachers.

As Jennifer walked into the building and her mother drove off, I thought how sad it would be if that was the last time Jennifer would ever see her mother. What a burden it would be for a teenager to bear. For an instant I remembered the time my brother left for a hunting trip and his teenage son was angry with him. He told my brother, "I wish you would go away and never come back!" And he never did. He drowned several hours later. I thought to myself, I need to tell Jennifer this story when she comes to second hour today. I knew she wouldn't listen, but I'd tell her anyway.

Like any other school day, we settled into announcements and roll call. As the bell for second hour rang at 9 a.m., I prepared the next class of marketing education students for a test. At 9:02, a loud boom rattled the windows, shook the ground and set off everyone's car alarms.

Because it had been raining the previous day, we assumed that another Oklahoma spring storm was brewing. I started the test and began walking around the room to monitor the action. Just then Shelby, a student who had been recording a TV program for me in my office, came in and said, "Ms. Green, you need to come here." I begged off, pointing at my test takers, and he then whispered, "Ms. Green, they blew up the federal building downtown."

My first thought was that Shelby had exaggerated. After all, we live in Oklahoma, and we know things like that don't happen here. Shelby said, "No, Ms. Green, they blew up the whole building!" Still not believing, I turned on the TV in my room, and what I saw seemed like a dream. I could see straight through the Alfred P. Murrah building. I got that sinking feeling where your stomach begins fluttering and your head feels kind of strange. The only thing I can compare it to would be the numbness I felt as a child when John F. Kennedy was killed, or that sickening feeling I had when the Challenger blew up.

As I looked at the building and the damage, I wondered how anyone could have survived. Half of it was just gone. The tarp on the top of the building was flapping in the wind, like a flag that had lost its mast. People were seriously hurt, children were bleeding, cars were on fire, people were running and the look of terror and disbelief was gut wrenching.

My students then made the connection to the boom we had heard. We're only seven miles from downtown Oklahoma City. I regained my senses and began thinking of my students, as I knew some of them had to have family members in that building, which housed more than 500 employees.

One of my students jumped up and ran out of the room crying because she was uncertain of where her uncle, a police officer, was supposed to be that day. Another student, Sheila, put her hands to her face and said, "My dad might be there today. He's an attorney, and he might have to be in court." I told her to get on the phone and call. Luckily, he wasn't scheduled to appear.

I then noticed Jennifer, who had a funny look on her face. She said very softly and quietly, "I think my mother is in there." My heart stopped. What do I do? They didn't train us in college to deal with a disaster. I wasn't required to take Disaster 101. My motherly instinct took over, and I walked back to her seat to give Jennifer a big hug. It was so sad, because Jennifer and her mother are the only ones in their family. …