Once the tornado touches down, there’s only so much you can do, and before it touches down, it’s all too easy to ignore. You teach. You tell Kira to put away her headphones, turn her music off, switch her cellphone onto silent and won’t Brody please turn back around? You insist. You say, Listen. The siren goes off all the time. You say, Our classroom is at basement level and anyway, it’s just a warning.
You insist this because it’s true, and because you have lived here for five years—the exact number of days since these students arrived in this Midwestern state. They are high school students from Portland, Seattle, Houston, Miami. They vacation in Nantucket and their dads drive Corvettes through rural New Jersey. They are here for summer camp and have never before heard what they’re now hearing.
The first time you heard the sirens, you were new to this state, too. You’d crossed the Plains and the Mississippi, left your East Coast home where it was only ever snow that cancelled school. Now there are tornados, and that first time, you lay there panicked—it was three thirty in the morning—and thought that out here, even the lightning was different, to say nothing of time or space. It was like a strobe light that first summer: incessant and far more frequent. You crept to your historic basement, not knowing what else to do, and for the thirty minutes that followed, you picked at scabs and watched the windows. You were scared, down there in your nightgown, but after a while, a pattern emerged: you only ever pushed open doors to downed tree branches, empty soda bottles, bags blown by wind.
This time, however, is different, and you know this because of your phone: how it rings once, twice, three times, but all the while, you just watch it light up. It is rude to answer your cellphone, most especially when you’re teaching a class. So a voicemail is left, and then another. And then another. And when at last the classroom rings—due to a phone you didn’t even know existed—you realize that this time is different, and you know then that it is bad.
…has touched down near Solon.
…has touched down in Tiffin.
These are places eighteen miles and five miles, respectively, from the very classroom where you stand, holding the corded phone looped round your wrist. This is a month only five weeks after an EF5 pummeled Moore, Oklahoma, only three weeks after another pummeled Oklahoma City. You were in a hotel that night in Ohio, drinking Coors from a tallboy can. You’d spent that day on the open road, the embankments steep and barren from where the worst summer storms had been. Still, sitting in that dingy hotel room, you watched everything they could find to show: cars crushed the way ice is crushed, houses toppled like Lincoln Logs. Days later, you watched it again, this time from a sun-lit East Coast living room, but all the while you thought of your home in Iowa, thinking, My god, and then: Not there.
Now you are here and the storms have joined you.
You want to tell your students that it will be okay, to settle down, to pay attention, but they are unsettled and right to be. They have every reason to be afraid. They’ve come here only to write: in composition notebooks and cafeteria napkins and in the marginalia of their new friends’ journals. They want to take photographs of native leaves and frosty mugs full of the town’s legendary Pie Shakes, the sticky faces of their new friends, sweet and red and sweaty from the long hours in the prairie’s heat. They don’t want to cower beneath a desk. They don’t want to worry about flying debris.
They never touch down here, you’ve said—how many times have you said this phrase?—and it was true for the longest time, until now, when it clearly isn’t.
In fear, you think of Asia: how on that long flight from Manila to Narita, the plane hit turbulence as you were eating, slurping soba and drinking hot, pale tea. It’s like when you stick your arm out of a moving car, a friend had once explained, and your arm waves up and down, but that doesn’t mean the car’s at risk.
But above Taiwan, above the Pacific, it felt nothing like a wavering arm. It was more severe than it’d been; it felt like the car was caving in.
You looked to your flight attendant, as you’d been told to do countless times before. Check on her expression. Evaluate her calamity. If she’s scared—if she can’t hide it—only then are you right to be.
That day above the Pacific, her outfit was well worn and blue and crisp; her hair was tied back in a stately bun. Even in another language, she remained fluid in calamity.
Now you must become her, pulling at your projector, buffering clips. You load first videos of yawning kittens, then K-pop videos, sloths fast asleep. Look, you say, it’s fine. We’re all just going to ride this out together. Because isn’t that the best that you can offer—to make these moments as light as possible? So you load bad karaoke and prankster red-heads, baby’s laughing as they tear at paper, and you do this all the while hoping, waiting, listening to the howls outside—all these storms both big and small you had no way of anticipating.
Amy Butcher is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and Gettysburg College. She was the 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in nonfiction writing at Colgate University and this past winter she was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and Salon, among others.
Copyright © 2013 by Amy Butcher.