When Robin Dziedzic reported to her 5th grade classroom at Briarwood Elementary School in Moore on May 20, 2013, she had no idea what the day had in store. A veteran teacher of more than 10 years, Robin had never experienced severe weather while at school. “I love being a teacher,” Robin explains. “I love it when kids gets excited about what they are learning. Having grown up in Kansas and lived in Moore since 2003, I am always aware that severe weather is a possibility while we are at school. But, until that day in May, I had never been in a situation in which we had to enact our safety plans.”
As the weather became severe on that Monday afternoon, Robin and her students found shelter in a restroom as an F5 tornado devastated their community and caused significant damage at their school. “My main thought was to keep the students calm and to reassure them that we were going to be all right,” she recalls. “I was definitely taking the situation minute-by-minute. I never thought it was going to be as bad as it was.” Robin recorded the events of the tornado as they occurred with her cell phone, capturing on video the harrowing events of that afternoon. She shared the video with the news media after the storm, and has appeared on ABC World News, CNN, the Discovery Channel and the Weather Channel.
“Although we all did exactly as we had practiced, nothing could have prepared us for that day,” Robin recalls. “It is truly amazing that no one in our school building lost their life.”
As Robin emerged from the bathroom and led her students to safety, her thoughts immediately went to her own children, who were in a different area of the school, and her personal home. “We were truly one of the lucky families from that storm,” she says. “I will forever be thankful that I did not lose my daughter or my son in that devastated building. We lost our car and lost our school, but other than some damage, our home was spared. I was very, very lucky that my children were safe and my house was not destroyed. Half a block away from me, homes were a total loss. We are forever grateful. I know that the tornado claimed precious lives and destroyed many families’ homes. I can only imagine the pain that those families have had to face. I especially feel for all those in the Plaza Towers family and all families who lost loved ones. I feel that as a result of this tragic storm, we are more appreciative of each day.”
Here, this 41-year-old mother of two shares her experience with the Moore tornado, what she has learned about herself and her community and her hopes for the coming school year.
Looking back, what is your strongest memory of the day that the tornado came?
When the first tornado announcement came, I told my students to look around. I assured them that we were surrounded by concrete bricks and steel, and we would be safe. I just could not believe that the wind could destroy all of that so easily. It took me several days to fully accept what had actually happened and how severe it really was.
What was your initial reaction when you saw the destruction once you emerged from the bathroom? How do you feel when you look back at that cell phone video footage now?
I was so very shocked to see our school. In a matter of minutes, everything was just destroyed. When I looked at the entrance to our library, I could not believe what I saw. There was rubble everywhere and I could see sky where the roof had been. I was dumbfounded when I saw that our our parking lot had just been completely swept clear—approximately 60 cars, just whisked away. I was doing my best just to wrap my mind around what I was seeing. I could not have imagined worse. At first, I thought that everyone was able to just walk out of the building as I did. Now I know that many others, including my own children, had a much more harrowing experience. Many were pinned under debris, or were covered in rubble and had to crawl out. I remember feeling certain that my home and everything around us was gone, based on the destruction I saw at the school.
Looking back, what moves you the most about the experience?
It was really heart-wrenching to see all of the children so terrified and upset, not to mention that I did not know what to do or what to say to reassure them completely. I just kept saying that everything would be okay, and we were all so lucky to be out and alive. We all just hung on tightly to one another, and did the best we could. Even afterwards, seeing the children react to the destruction was so sad. Many were screaming that their parents were right across the street in the neighborhood that was totally destroyed. Others were worried that the tornado was not over, and we were in danger of being hit again. Every adult I saw was either comforting a child or screaming a child’s name. I wanted to be sure that every parent who came to that devastated school looking for their child could find them as quickly as possible.
In the days after the event, some children experienced the further devastation of dealing with losing their homes and their personal belongings. I spoke to kids who said their family never found their bed, which had all their stuffed animals on it. Even kids who did not lose their homes did lose their school, as well as their sense of security. Our community was much like a war zone for days, with helicopters flying overhead and the devastating sights.
What did you learn about yourself and your community as a part of this experience?
I must admit that my sense of security has been shaken. To have an event such as that happen on an average day was huge. However, the way that our community has come together during this difficult time has been inspiring. The strength of the Oklahoma people, combined with the kindness of people from all over, has made the days following the tornado bearable.
I saw such wonderful acts of thoughtfulness and generosity, like the day that I came home and every house on my block had a case of water on the porch, and people were driving around passing out toiletries, fresh fruit and hot meals. I came home to find that volunteers had picked up the debris from my yard. A volunteer organization helped tarp the hole in my roof from a 2×4 that had impaled it. Oklahoma is strong. We will recover and be even better than before!
How are you feeling as you look towards the 2013-14 school year?
I am truly looking forward to this next school year! I know that there will be some inevitable anxieties that would not normally be a concern, but I am also very excited about the potential. We are so fortunate that Emmaus Church has offered us their facility for the year. I look forward to getting to know my students and becoming a school family. I hope to show them that even though it will be a year of transition, we are all in it together, and we will learn and have fun doing it. The real rainbow from this storm will be when we are in our new building, constructed from the love of so many and built to keep us safe as we head there each day to make friends and learn. That will be an awesome day!
How do you banish stress?
I try to ask myself if what I’m stressed over will be important in 20 years. Getting plenty of rest helps too.
What is on your wish list?
Right now, a decent new car, since I lost my old Honda in the tornado, along with some home repairs.
Advice for other moms?
I think it’s really important to keep your own personal identity and have some time for yourself. It can be difficult when our babies are so dependent on us, but as they grow, it’s important to remember the other relationships in our lives. It really is true that a happy mom is a better mom.
What’s the biggest challenge in your life?
I’ve been divorced since my kids were five and two years old. Co-parenting can be difficult, but I have always thought it is really important for kids to have both parents equally involved in their lives. If you look on the bright side of things, co-parenting gives one the opportunity to spend time on work, errands, love relationships, and your own personal interests that married parents often do not get.
What is your parenting style?
I take parenting seriously, but I try to remind myself to choose my battles. I am not afraid to enforce what I think is important, such as homework and manners, but I want my children to know, without a doubt, that I love them unconditionally, even if to them, I might seem strict.
Quick Facts About Robin:
What are 4 words that describe you? Outgoing, loving, strong willed, sensitive.
What is your favorite indulgence? Pistachio gelato.
What’s always in your handbag? Gum, lotion, lip gloss, sunglasses, my camera— you name it, it’s in there!
What’s your guilty pleasure? White chocolate coconut Lindt bars
What’s on your reading list? Call It Courage, so that I can teach it to my 5th graders next year. After what my students have been through, they’ll be able to relate to the feeling of triumph as you conquer something you didn’t think you could handle.
Brooke Barnett is the Editor of MetroFamily Magazine.