Last week was full of such promise – graduation celebrations planned for thousands of Oklahoma teens, the start of summer vacation for children and the fun that includes, the end to a busy school year for educators. All of that changed on May 19th and 20th. Deadly tornadoes killed more than two-dozen people and destroyed many, many homes in Shawnee, Carney, Bethel Acres, Newcastle and South Oklahoma City. However none were more affected than the community of Moore and the Moore Public School District.
As I toured the site of devastation in Moore last week, my heart broke as I heard the stories of the children whose lives were lost. I know that comfort for their families is nearly incomprehensible, yet I pray that each family finds solace and some measure of peace.
Yet, in the midst of such tragedy, I heard incredible stories of heroism and bravery.
I heard of multiple teachers throwing themselves over children and taking the brunt of the storm. I also heard of district support personnel putting themselves in harm's way. Firefighters and other first responders worked through the night to find victims. We all know that the now famous Oklahoma Standard was evident as countless community members came forward with donations and help in clearing debris.
One particularly touching story was told at Governor Fallin's prayer service on Sunday night at Moore's First Baptist Church.
Waynel Mayes, a first-grade teacher at Briarwood Elementary School, which was destroyed by Monday's storm, told of how she tried to keep her students calm. She said as she moved desks to give the children shelter, she told them they were going to play a game. She asked them to get their musical instruments and try to play louder than the storm. When the students couldn’t drown out the wind's wail, she asked them to start singing as loudly as they could. They sang several songs including, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," changing the chorus to "He's got Moore, Oklahoma, in His hands." One student requested the song "Jesus Loves Me," and Ms. Mayes complied.
The actions of our teachers last week did not surprise me. When I visit schools across the state each week, I always tell my staff that I see a miracle every day. Teachers are that miracle. Teachers all over this state show courage walking into their classrooms every day, facing incredible odds with children who come to them sometimes hungry and ill-prepared for learning, sometimes from extreme poverty or abusive situations. Yet, teachers spark an interest. Through their caring, they break down barriers. They do all they can to prepare each child for a bright, successful future. Then, when nature demands it, they go the extra mile and put their own lives at risk in order to save the lives of the children entrusted to them.
We will not forget such bravery. The Oklahoma Standard was equally evident in the courage and commitment of Moore teachers during this horrifying event.
I also had the privilege of attending two graduation ceremonies for Moore Public Schools on Saturday. It was very uplifting to see these students be able to experience this special day in spite of the tragedies that had occurred. Many of the students graduating were from families that had lost everything, including the lives of loved ones. Yet, no one let that stand in the way of these students walking across the stage to accept their diplomas and be recognized for their academic achievements. I know the other communities affected did not let anything stand in the way of celebrating their graduates either, and I am so happy for those graduating seniors as well. Witnessing such resilience makes my heart swell with pride for the strength that is emblematic of all Oklahomans.
We are indeed Oklahoma Strong.