Bonnie Henry: Some days, teachers are first responders

2013-06-02T00:00:00Z Bonnie Henry: Some days, teachers are first respondersBonnie Henry Special to The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Some took a bullet for the children. Months later, others would shield them with their own bodies under an avalanche of brick and lumber. They were the first of the first responders: the teachers of Newtown, Conn., and, later, Moore, Okla.

Along with the awful news last December of the mass shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School came tales of heroics seldom seen outside the battlefield:

First-grade teacher Victoria Soto, shot while trying to protect her students. And special-education teacher Anne Marie Murphy, found slumped over the children she was trying to shield. Both were among the six dead Sandy Hook educators honored last month with the Citizens Honors Medal, the highest award given to a civilian.

Then there were the survivors, such as kindergarten teacher Janet Vollmer, who, when the shots rang out, locked her door, covered the windows, took the children into a nook between the bookcases and wall, and read them a story to keep them calm. "I wanted to be the last thing they heard, not the gunfire," Vollmer would later say of her tiny pupils, who all survived.

How many of us would react the same way, stifling our own fear and panic so that others might live?

At Sandy Hook, the danger was unannounced and immediate. Five months later, as a killer tornado bore down on the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, teachers had a little more warning - 16 minutes to be exact.

Time enough for teachers to herd the children into hallways, a closet, a bathroom - anywhere where it looked the likeliest of surviving what would later turn out to be the deadliest tornado classification, an EF-5. At Briarwood Elementary, third-grade teacher Julie Simon held the children down against a wind so strong it sucked the glasses right off the kids' faces.

A mile away at Plaza Towers Elementary, third-grade teacher Jennifer Doan covered her pupils with her own body. She was pulled from the wreckage with a fractured sternum and spine. Seven of the students here would die, but not the little boy pinned beneath her as they waited to be rescued. "I was just telling him to try to be calm," she would later recount. There's that word again, "calm."

Calm was what Plaza Towers teachers Jessica Simonds and Anna Canaday also exuded, as they each herded 10 or so kindergartners into the hall, had them kneel on the floor, then shielded them with their own bodies. After it was over, neighbors had to hoist away a car to free the teachers and the students below them. All survived. The teachers then formed a line to help get the kids out of the rubble.

Form a line. Just what teachers do. Just as they did at Sandy Hook, when they guided the children, eyes closed, past the carnage.

Remember these teachers the next time you carp about the educational system, vote no on the next school bond election, or elect legislators who hold little regard for educating our children.

Sure there are a few bad apples in the bunch, just as there are in any profession. But few professions have been as beleaguered as that of education.

Tightfisted funding has forced teachers to bring their own supplies to class. Due to endless testing, many must now emphasize rote memorization rather than teach creatively.

Teachers must also serve as social workers, subject to firing or even jail time if they fail to report a suspicion of abuse, yet open to possible lawsuits if they do. And no, don't you dare give little Ethan a pat on the back or a sympathetic hug. That, too, could be grounds for dismissal.

When I was a child, our teachers held duck-and-cover drills against a nuclear conflagration that never came.

Today's teachers face a more daunting reality, both in and out of the classroom. Next time you see one, give him or her a little nod of recognition, perhaps a quick thank-you. After all, when tragedy comes calling again in our nation's schools - as we know it will - it is the teachers who will be there on the front lines - the first of our first responders.

Bonnie Henry's column runs every other Sunday. Contact her at Bonniehenryaz@gmail.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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