Backpacks, Human Shields, Above and Beyond: The Oklahoma Teacher Heroes

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Roughly 1,500 miles separate the elementary schools in Moore, Oklahoma, and Newtown, Connecticut. Six months separate their tragedies. And while there are marked differences between the devastating violence in these two towns brought so quickly and emotionally to the American spotlight, there is at least one uplifting constant: the courage of teachers who tried everything in their power to save the children. Because that's what teachers do.

"Among the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew: their school," President Obama said during his press conference addressing the Oklahoma tornado Tuesday. As of Tuesday evening, all students at Briarwood Elementary School and AgapeLand Learning Center have been accounted for; police said seven of nine children confirmed to have died in the storm's path went to Plaza Towers Elementary. 

Of course the terror at Sandy Hook Elementary is not the same as that of the three schools hit by the tornado. And, yes, the death of such young children is a horrifying connection. But as the recovery efforts continue, know that there are men and women in Oklahoma, not unlike the guardians of Sandy Hook, who were there when America's kids needed them most. These are their stories:

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Plaza Towers Elementary

  • The Woman of Steel "We had to pull a car out of the front hall off a teacher and I don't know what her name is, but she had three little kids underneath her," a rescuer is quoted as saying in a story from CNN's LZ Granderson. Yes, you read that right, rescuers pulled a car off a teacher who was shielding students from harm. And she seemed to survive, as the rescue worker told KFOR, via Today: "'

    Good job, teach,' he said, breaking into tears."

  • The determined Rhonda Crosswhite A sixth-grade teacher at Plaza Towers, Crosswhite threw herself over students who were hiding in the school bathroom as the tornado ripped it to shreds. "I was in a stall with some kids and it just started coming down, so I laid on top of them," Crosswhite told Savannah Guthrie this morning. "One of my little boys just kept saying, 'I love you, I love you, please don't die with me.'" The children Crosswhite protected are now safe. 
  • The first responders "They literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out," Oklahoma State Police Sergeant Jeremy Lewis, is quoted as saying in The Chicago Tribune.

Briarwood Elementary

  • Sherry Bittle and Cindy Lowe, livesavers Bittle and Lowe, along with teachers at the now-obliterated Briarwood, also shielded students with their own bodies. "I had them take their backpacks and put them over their head as another safety precaution if they were down in the corner in the center of our room — in the center of our building," Bittle told ABC News. Lowe added that as the walls were coming down — and in spite of it — she, too, tried to protect as many kids as she could: "Just like Sherry said, getting them covered up, you know, we practice tornado drills and things like this and I had to tell them, this is not a drill, and we need to be safe and just laying my body on top of as many kids as I could to help out." All the students at Briarwood were accounted for as of Tuesday. 
  • Julie Simon, human shield "She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down," the father of one of Simon's 8-year-old students tells the Associated Press, which adds that Simon had ushered her students into a closet instead of the hallway, as a kind of tornado drill, but very much improvised on the fly: "David Wheeler says the teacher at Briarwood Elementary in Oklahoma City took students into a closet and shielded them with her arms as the tornado collapsed the roof and starting lifting children upward."
  • Briarwood was also the site where these photos of dusty, bloodied teachers holding kids and comforting them emerged: 

AgapeLand Learning Center

  • Calm during the storm. According to a report from The New York Times, the staff at AgapeLand Learning Center, a daycare facility, was watching over some 15 children when the tornado struck. Staffers began "draping them with a protective covering and singing songs with them to keep them calm," Times reporters Nick Oxford and Michael Schwirtz write. And "as the wind ripped the roof off one of the bathrooms, and debris rained down on the children, they remained calm, singing 'You Are My Sunshine,'" the Times team reports, adding that although the daycare facility was smashed to pieces, not one child was harmed. 

"Their profession fuels all others, and on a normal day that is amazing enough in and of itself," CNN's Granderson writes. Thankfully, on Monday and on that awful December day, the teachers we trust so much went above and beyond amazing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.