Smiling, I put the finishing touches on a gift. It was May 2013, the weekend before the last 4 days of school, which marked the end of my first year as a teacher at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma. Call me sentimental, but I’d made gifts for all of my 26 students. I loved my job and knew I would never forget this class. I’d made each student a portfolio of their work, hoping they too would cherish the memories.
Humming, I walked across the room in our house in Norman, Oklahoma and froze. A picture freeze-framed in my mind’s eye. I saw what looked like a war zone, and I was walking through the debris! I realized I was seeing a disaster, but what kind? Here in Oklahoma, we’d suffered a terrorist attack in 1995. Might there be another? It looked like war. Whatever it represented, I knew one thing for certain; God wanted me to pray.
Already alarmed, when the picture flashed in my view a second time, I knew for sure that some kind of disaster was about to happen. “Preston,” I said to my husband, “we’ve got to pray!” I described the vision I’d seen and we began praying in the spirit, pleading for understanding.
The next day, Sunday, May 19, tornado sirens wailed in the afternoon as we took cover in a friend’s storm shelter. Several tornadoes touched down north and east of us bringing death and destruction. I was tired by the time we got home that evening and turned on the news. It wasn’t good. Meteorologists said that conditions were ripe for super cells. Most of the time those conditions don’t fulfill their potential, but we’ve learned to keep an eye on the sky and stay abreast of the storm warnings.
On Monday, May 20, only 23 of my 26 students arrived for class. Some had been kept home because of the uncertain weather. Many of them had taken shelter the night before and that’s all they wanted to talk about.
During journal time I said, “Okay, let’s get out our journals and talk with our pencils.”
The classroom fell quiet for a few minutes except for the scratching of pencils against paper. Taking care of some paperwork, I thought about the women’s mentoring group I attended which was led by Rev. Barbara Stumprud and Julia Pickard. Back in February they suggested we read Psalm 91: God’s Umbrella of Protection by Peggy Joyce Ruth. Although I was familiar with the Bible, I’d never studied that psalm of protection. I loved reading about the secret place of the Most High.
The 4th verse read, “He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings shall you trust and find refuge...”The author explained that pinions are the strongest part of the wing. She compared this verse to a mother hen scooping her chicks under her wings for protection. For some reason I’d gotten stuck on this verse, reading it over and over. I couldn’t seem to get past it.
The children finished journaling and around noon we had Café Time. I used my SmartBoard to project an image of a café on the wall, complete with coffee and biscotti. Students gathered around me and each one took a turn with the microphone, talking about things they’d written in their journal.
During recess, Preston showed up to take my car. “It’s going to be bad,” he said. How bad? I thought, looking up into dark, ominous clouds. I always prayed protection over my students and I’d anointed their desks with oil early in the school year. But, today was unusual; I’d spent every spare moment praying and listening for God.
Returning after recess, our 4th grade classes rotated and my class was much smaller in the afternoons. Parents picked up their students at a steady pace, and by 1:35 I only had 10 left. We all settled on the floor for reading time. The students were excited about our next chapter. I was reading The Magician’s Nephew, one of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia series. The world of Narnia was in darkness, still in the process of being created. As Aslan sang, brilliant green grass sprang up out of the ground piercing the darkness with new life.
I paused and whispered, “This is such a powerful comparison between good and evil and how new life always grows out of darkness.” Enrapt in the story, for a while we almost forgot the dark clouds gathering over our comfortable little world.Thunder bellowed outside our classroom shaking our walls as the hail began to fall.
There weren’t many children left at school by 2:30 when the principal’s words crackled over the loud speakers instructing everyone to take tornado precautions. We’d practiced enough over the school year that the kids knew the drill by heart.
They also knew this wasn’t a drill.
The noise I heard approaching the school was louder than any train I’d ever heard. The ground vibrated like a train approaching the station. But, as it closed the distance to the school, it felt like an earthquake.
Scared and weeping, they formed a line in the hall. Outside tornado sirens shrilled as the children knelt and held a book over their heads just as we’d practiced. As we waited, calming the kids, more parents arrived...but it was too late to leave. They were trapped with us. There were only about 40 people in our hall, 30 of them children. When the school is full, there are too many children to take shelter in
the bathrooms. However, part of our disaster plan is that if we think that students might be in danger from breaking glass, we can move them into the restrooms. Our hall was dotted with large square lights which the other hallway didn’t have. After a brief consultation with the other teachers, we decided to squeeze our group into the girl’s bathroom.
“Scoot up! Scoot up!” I urged. As the tornado sirens screamed again, children crawled under the sinks and stacked like cordwood in the stalls. My back was facing the doorway and I was holding hands tightly with my co-teacher. We had to survive this together. Just then my cell phone rang, and I hadn’t had reception before.
Preston had been watching the path of the tornado and was horrified to watch it tracking straight for the school. “I love you so much,” he said, choking back tears.
“I love you too.” As Preston and I said goodbye, fear and grief threatened to overwhelm me. Would this goodbye be forever? My cell phone went dead. Gasping, I jumped to my feet trying to get a breath. Swirling around, I stood facing the doorway to the hall—and watched, frozen in shock—as the tornado came near us. I took cover again hovering over a couple students. Massive brown, violent, swirling debris moved past us down the very hallway we’d just vacated. In my life I’d never felt a more demonic presence. The sense of evil was so overwhelming that a startling truth crossed my mind: tornadoes are not an act of God!
I didn’t know if I had the spiritual strength for what we faced. “Lord, give me one verse to pray!” I cried.
The answer was delivered to me as I stayed in a prayer position. “Psalm 91:4.” Personalizing the verse I prayed, “He will cover us with His pinions and under His wings we will trust and find refuge!” I prayed that verse over and over until someone pressed their hand to my back.
Had another parent arrived and needed to squeeze inside? I turned to see who it was.
No one was there.
The fear was palpable. “These are my students!” I declared. “They aren’t dying!”
The rumble of the approaching tornado was deafening, but I heard an assuring whisper. Nikki, you’re going to be okay. Suddenly it felt like the earth shifted on its axis. Walls crashed, the roof lifted away. Pipes broke. Children screamed. Cement blocks flew through the air like twigs. Nothing prepared me for what came next.
The cacophony of sights and sounds indescribable, the building that had been our refuge from the world was reduced to nothing more than matchsticks of timber and desolation. My ears still roaring from the sound, I began pulling debris off of screaming children. Many of them had head wounds, cuts, scrapes, and they were all terrified. “It’s okay!” I said to screaming children as we pulled them out of the rubble. “You’re alive!” Everyone was in shock. The kids were cold and shivering, bloody and caked with mud and debris, but they were all alive.
My brave co-teacher Mrs. Martinez helped our student, Makaila, out of the rubble. With a tear-stained face Makaila said, “I knew I was going to be okay because I asked God to put us in protective bubbles.”
As I stepped out onto the debris to view the scene, my breath hitched. It looked like a bulldozer had razed the school. It was the exact image that had flashed before my eyes twice over the weekend. I later found out that children in the other hallway were ushered into heaven and into the Lord’s glorious light on that day.
I often think back to May 20, 2013. How did I stand so close to an EF-5 tornado, watching it pass, and not get sucked into the vortex? It’s as though we were in the secret place of the Most High, a place so supernatural that a child might describe it as a protective bubble.
I still recall the pressure on my back. And, I remember how the
Lord directed me to pray Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with His pinions...” I don’t believe that what I felt was a hand. It was the Lord covering us, scooping us under His wing for protection.