If I were asked where I grew up, my spontaneous answer would be, “In an Oklahoma root cellar.”
Over the past few days as the media have followed the tragic events of destruction in Moore, Oklahoma, my thoughts have drifted back to my childhood. As a little boy, I assumed that springtime was when the trees bloomed and everybody sat around in Grandma’s root cellar—or maybe below Mr. Mac’s house (he was the only one on Symmes Street with a basement and when siren blew, he welcomed us all in).
Tornadoes have always been a fact of life in Oklahoma. Growing up in Norman, which borders Moore to the south, I heard all the stories of tornadoes past and knew all the rules about evading and surviving the future twisters we rightly anticipated. Everybody in that part of the world has tornado stories to tell, but this blog isn’t really about tornadoes.
Being related to half the population of central Oklahoma, I always get concerned when I hear that tornadoes are reported there. I found out quickly the storm that hit Edmond on May 19 was on the opposite side of the city from my sister’s home. The next evening I heard about a tornado rolling through Moore, where many in my extended family live. I called my mother, who lives 30 miles south, to ask if any of our folks were in harm’s way. Mom and two of my cousins were in her truck driving south (always remember, tornadoes travel north and west) because another tornado had been forecast to track through tiny Byars where she lives. After the debris quit flying and noses were counted, all my kinfolks were unharmed. This blog, however, is not about my family in Moore once again surviving an F-5 tornado.
As I read and listened to accounts of those who endured the May 20 twister, and in particular the reports of what happened at the three schools that were partially or completely destroyed, there was something I heard repeatedly: as the tornado hit, the children in those schools were on the floors in the hallways and bathrooms and their teachers were lying on top of them.
I keep thinking about that. And I thought about the heroism of the teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, trying to shield their students from a gunman with their bodies. Can you imagine such fierce love, such a totally unreserved willingness to perish for the children they taught? Servicemen and women go to combat knowing that they may be killed or desperately wounded. In the face of that, our nation recognizes their courage and lauds them with high honors—rightly so. Yet when a teacher goes into a classroom intending to impart a daily dose of education to a group of children and ends up putting herself or himself in the path of death for the sake of those kids, I ask myself: is there any individual anywhere who should be more highly honored? In moments of crisis and tragedy, our truest selves emerge. And if we ever wanted to know the “stuff” of which the teachers of Moore and Newtown are made, we found out with perfect clarity. Really, though, the unbelievable heroism of those teachers is not the ultimate subject of this blog.
As a little kid going to Andrew Jackson Elementary in Norman, Oklahoma, (yeah, a school named for Andrew Jackson in the Chickasaw Nation; ironic, huh?), I was the boy no teacher wanted in her class—the little snot who only opened his mouth to say smart aleck things. Yet as God is my witness, if Monday’s tornado had ripped through Norman in 1959, Mrs. Rey would have climbed on top of me to save my life without hesitation.
In general (and, yes, I know there are exceptions), school teachers then and school teachers today are committed professionals who will give the best of themselves for their students in every way without reservation. Teaching children is a calling as deep and strong as any calling ever felt by a minister, missionary or prophet. The difference between the era of my childhood and today is that teaching and teachers are presently under assault: compared to previous generations (and, yes, I know this is a matter of degree), they are not supported in their work by school districts or legislatures; they are not respected and held in high esteem by parents and citizens; the general attitude toward education in our nation is that it is “broken.” If public education is broken in our nation, those who absolutely are not to blame are the teachers. As Newtown and Moore demonstrated, teachers are every bit as committed as they ever were. Teachers are just as smart, just as well educate and even more called to teaching than previous generations. Obviously, knowing the jaundiced view of the public toward education, why would anyone become a teacher if they could be happy doing something else?
Now we come to the real point of this blog—the “moral of the story.” I’m going to tell whoever will listen how to fix public education in our nation: get the hell out of the way of our teachers! The real job of every school board, county commission, state legislature and federal agency in our nation with regard to education is very simple—go to our school teachers and ask them, “What do you need from us in order to educate our children,” and then give teachers the resources they ask for and stay out of their way. Public education is no place for eager politicians, idealistic bureaucrats or self-righteous moralists. As the education of our children goes, so goes our nation. Since the days of my childhood, public schooling in America got broken in great measure because we let posturing politicians and careerists make decisions about our children’s education.
As a direct result of two horrible recent tragedies, we have been taught a huge lesson by courageous public school teachers themselves. No congressman or pundit has ever been present to shield a schoolchild from imminent danger. Talk is cheap. Shielding a child with your own life is beyond price. Teachers are the ones willing to be there and who know what to do when they are. As a civilization we need to honor our public school teachers and let them do the job to which they feel called.