She'd never been through a tornado, but a passage of Scripture bolstered her against fear.
Posted in , Sep 6, 2013
A teacher’s supposed to have the answers. I can teach my fourth graders the state capitals and how to write cursive; I can list all the books in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series.
But I can’t explain why some children died in the tornado that hit our school last May and the ones with me survived. All I can tell you is that the tragedy doesn’t mean God was absent.
My colleagues and I went back three weeks later to see the devastation where Plaza Towers Elementary once stood. Most of the debris had been hauled away. We brought chalk and Sharpies to write on the remaining rubble, a way to say goodbye. I stepped over concrete blocks to where my classroom had been.
“The best class ever,” I scrawled on the dusty linoleum. My first class, my first full year of teaching. I never imagined it ending like this. From here I could see the path we’d taken, down the hall and into the bathroom, our shelter from the storm. I remembered everything.
The Sunday before the storm, I was in our living room, getting things together for school. Tornado warnings had run on TV all weekend. They’re a fact of life here in Oklahoma, and our school frequently ran tornado drills. But I had never been in a twister’s path. The thought terrified me.
I was trained to teach and respond to a disaster, but was I ready? Every weather update increased my anxiety. Lives were in my hands. What if I faltered under pressure when my students needed me most?
I was putting away some manila folders when it happened. I looked up, and the living room wall seemed to melt away. In its place was an image of destruction. I could see myself walking in debris: wood, dirt, glass, bricks.
I closed my eyes, wishing the vision away. I opened them. It was still there. The disaster had come. And I wasn’t brave, I was completely paralyzed.
I called to my husband. “Preston, come here!” He came running. I rubbed my eyes; the image vanished. “Something bad is going to happen,” I told him, hardly able to breathe. And I was powerless to stop it.
“We should pray about it,” Preston said.
All at once, Psalm 91 came to mind. In my Bible study, we’d been analyzing it. “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge....”
Pinions, we’d learned, were the strongest feathers in a bird’s wing, able to withstand the most pressure without breaking. The psalm wasn’t just about protection... it was about making us strong in the face of danger. That’s what I needed. Preston and I prayed, and I felt my courage rising.
Monday at school started out quiet, but the tornado warnings persisted. In the afternoon, I gathered my children around me to read C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, but didn’t get far.
“All teachers and students, please seek safety immediately,” our principal announced over the intercom. “Tornado drill.” The sky was dark, lightning flashed, thunder roared, hail pelted the roof. In the distance, sirens wailed.
This is no drill. I felt the panic, the paralysis creep in. But I remembered I had to draw on God’s strength. “Follow me, students,” I said to my class. I led them into the hall, just as we’d drilled.
The other teachers and I debated whether to take an additional step—cramming into the bathrooms, which at least were away from the windows. I spoke up, as did some others. “Let’s go.” Forty of us crowded in. Some crawled under sinks, some huddled in stalls.
The approaching tornado was deafening. The ground shook. The power flickered, and the light streaming in from the hallway faded. The air smelled dank, rotten.
My phone rang. Preston! I held it to my ear. “Nikki,” he said, “I love you.” “I love you too,” I shouted back. The line went dead. Then the power went out completely.
My fear was so great I couldn’t think of what to do. Then those words from Psalm 91 came to me, the lines I’d prayed with Preston. “Crouch down,” I urged the children. “Backpacks and books over your heads. Fold your legs under you. Keep your backs to the wall.”
I sank down by the doorway. One girl started crying. I threw my arms around her.
I prayed, calling out to the screaming winds, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you shall find refuge....” Others prayed too.
The air pressure plummeted. Walls crashed, the roof lifted up, pipes broke, shards of metal and concrete flew. The wind sucked the air out of my lungs. I kept praying. Then I felt a hand against my back. Someone comforting me. I glanced up. No one was there. I shut my eyes again.
The hail stopped, the whipping winds ceased. The next time I looked up, there was nothing but sky above us. I peered out the doorway. The hall wasn’t there anymore.
We stepped carefully over the concrete blocks and bricks. First responders guided us out, holding our hands. I looked over the debris. Fallen beams, rain-soaked insulation, shattered glass. Devastation no one could have been prepared for.
Yet I’d seen it before, that Sunday. Everything, the awesome destruction, laid out before me. I had been ready. When the tornado came, I’d done what I thought I couldn’t—what I needed to do.
I wanted to thank God for that. So I’d come back, weeks after the disaster, Sharpie in hand. I walked through the rubble to the bathroom.
I knew what I wanted to write, what I had to say. The only answer I had found amid all the unanswerable questions. But the words were already written there by someone else. “Under his wings you shall find refuge....”
I don’t know why terrible things happen. But I know how we get through them. We are covered by pinions, the strongest feathers, ready to face whatever comes next.
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