May is tornado season in the Midwest. Each year, beginning in the spring, Mother Nature unleashes her fury in the form of snake-like funnel clouds that descend from black licorice skies and wreak havoc on fields, farms and the occasional town. If you live anywhere in the Midwest, you become accustomed to the seasonal ritual of late afternoon T.V. being interrupted by mercurial meteorologists who, conflicted with excitement and concern, tell you that a storm is approaching and that Doppler radar has detected the early formation of a funnel cloud in your county.
I do not like tornadoes. I do not like the severe thunderstorms that spawn them.I question the sanity of those who chase tornadoes for sport. My father, however, was known to leave the safety of his basement during a tornado warning to check the status of our garbage cans. Never mind that the house could be turned into a pile of splinters or that he could have ended up in Oz. As long as the garbage cans were secure, he was a happy fella’.
Speaking of Oz, I think my initial fear of twisters stems from the MGM classic. Is it all in my head, or is The Wizard of Oz more fear inducing than fanciful? Witches…flying monkeys…tornadoes that chase kids into a comatose state? No thanks. I’d rather slurp spoonfuls of sugar with Mary Pippins than skip down the yellow brick road with a klutzy scarecrow, traumatized tin man and cowardly lion in terrible need of counseling. (Actually, now that I think of it, Mary Poppins does nothing to ease my fear of gusty winds. You might recall the scene in the movie where nannies holding umbrellas are tossed around like green salad by strong gale-force winds.)
In 1968, a tornado touched down in my hometown of Omaha. I did not see it. First, it was many miles from my house. Second, I was in the bathtub. Not in the bathtub with a mattress over my head like any good trailer park occupant is instructed to do during a twister. No, I was in the bathtub up to my neck in water. Apparently my folks thought it was more important that I be squeaky clean than safe from being sucked up like soda in the straw-like suction of a cyclone.
On May 6, 1975 another tornado descended on Omaha. It hit shortly after I arrived home from high school. The sky was dark, pea-soup green. The sirens began shrieking about 4:30. I remember my dog, Scoobi, cowering in a corner (animals are quick to sense changes in air pressure). I, along with my mom, siblings and dog ran down to the basement. We heard on our battery-operated radio that a twister had touched down only a few miles from our house and was heading our way. We listened as the train-like roar of the storm neared our house. The lights went out. The air pressure toyed with our ears. The front door slammed open and shut. I remembering thinking that the house was about to implode and that we were about to be transported to neighboring Iowa. And then my dad, home early from work, walked into the cellar. He informed us that the weather outside was nasty, but that the garbage cans were secure! The locomotive sound increased. Then all was silent—and stayed that way.
Vast portions of Omaha were flattened that day. The city experienced over 150 million dollars in damage (for pictures, go to a search engine and type in “Omaha tornado”). Many of my friends lost their homes. We were lucky. The path of the storm missed our house by mere blocks. We figure my dad made it home from with only minutes to spare.
Looking back, I always managed to weather the weather thanks, in great part, to my parents’ calm reaction and deliberate diversions. They often told jokes or stories while we waited out the storms.
Once, in second grade, I went home for lunch (yep, a kid could go home, have a bologna sandwich and soup, and return to school without a care in the world or in need of a permission note). While there, I heard on the radio that Omaha was under a tornado watch (favorable conditions, no funnel sited) for the next few hours. I did not want to return to Mrs. Weber’s class. My mom accompanied me back to school and shared my anxiety with my teacher. For the rest of the afternoon my teacher smiled at me, gave me gentle pats on the back, sang my favorite song, “Born Free.” and eventually whispered in my ear that the tornado watch had lapsed. She too had put on the right face to calm my fears.
It doesn’t take a tornado to traumatize a child. We all have our fears (don’t even get me started with snakes). We all experience disappointments, receive our share of bumps and bruises, and get swept up in personal storms.
The face we wear when helping children work through fear, pain or frustration goes a long way toward calming their internal storms. A small child who has fallen down and scraped a knee looks to a parent to see how to react. A student who struggles on a test or assignment looks to a teacher for guidance and reassurance. A student who complains that school is too rigorous or too “boring” seeks validation. What face does one wear when responding to such concerns? Sometimes the face we wear is reflected in the words we choose. What words does one use to define a successful school day? “Did you have a fun day at school?” “What did you learn at school today?” “Whom did you help out in class today?” “What moral or ethical dilemma did you wrestle with today?” “How did you make the world a better place?”
What face will you wear if your child does not get in a class with his or her best friend, or with a desired teacher? What words will you use when your child makes a mistake at school and is invited to visit the principal? What action will you undertake when you discover your son or daughter has left an assignment at home or has failed to do it?
This is not easy stuff. Every day our kids’ challenges and concerns touch down in front of us like tornadoes and we try, like Pacos Bill, to rein them in with our lassos of learned wisdom and strategies. Sometimes it’s best to let the storms blow themselves out. Other times a carefully chosen face or a measured talk is required. In any case, it is comforting to remember that rainbows follow thundershowers, blue skies chase twisters away, and kids remain secure, like my dad’s trashcans, in the knowledge that adults care for them.