Children of Oklahoma City learning hard lessons of horror and healing COPING WITH TRAGEDY

April 21, 1995|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The lesson had been scrawled in four words on the chalkboard in Sherline Murphy's fourth-grade classroom: Tragic; tragedy; injured; physically.

The 16 boys and girls sat up straight and fixed their gaze on counselors Anita Walker and Archie Scott as they entered Room A-209 yesterday.

Woodrow Wilson Elementary sits a dozen blocks from the horror. Wednesday's bomb rocked these kids' desks. Among the 950 children who roam the cool blue fish-painted corridors, many had friends or relatives caught in the blast. Others were evacuated from their homes nearby.

None will ever be so innocent again.

"How many of you know about what happened?" asks Mr. Scott, 16 years a teacher, the past four a counselor.

All hands rise.

"How many of you have been affected?"

Ten hands go up.

And the healing begins.

"Most of these things that happen are something that you and I have no control over. But it's not something that could happen to your school building," says Ms. Walker, head of the 30 counselors who tend the psychological needs of Oklahoma City's 39,000 students. "Today, we want to calm you all down and let you know this is an isolated thing. You are safe in school."

But, of course, she now knows differently. In classrooms across the nation, teachers and counselors grapple with a collective dilemma: Not only, Why? Not just, Why Oklahoma City? But, why the children?

"Ask about Jenny's mom," says a little girl.

"My mother was hurt," Jenny tells Ms. Walker.

"My grandma got hurt, too," says another girl in a teddy-bear T-shirt and ponytail.

It's hard to tell who, if anyone, is exaggerating. But it's easy to believe they're not.

"A lot of people from my church worked in the building, and some of them haven't been found," says Ben in the back row.

"How do you feel about that?" asks Mr. Scott.

"I feel they're stuck in there and can't get out. They can't even shout for help."

As rescue workers down the street proceed with their gruesome nine-story search, the children of this capital can't stop from personalizing this tragedy: MY mom's friend. MY school.

"My mama told me it shook our house," says a boy in a soft whisper. "She had to come here and see if I was hurt."

For Mr. Scott and Ms. Walker, the drill is old hat, yet uncomfortably new: "The basics are the same," says Mr. Scott. "Whether it's a student who's drowned or a building that's blown up, we try to show empathy and relieve fear. We assure them there is help if they're ever in trouble. We get them to talk about it. And we try to get them to do something."

Ms. Walker changes the drift of the session: "What things can we do? Can we write letters to the people in the hospital?"

"We could send colorful balloons to the kids who were hurt," says Ashley. "Because a lot of those kids were babies, and some lTC color might help their lives."

When Mr. Scott hammers in his message, it is with a stunning and childlike simplicity.

"When these things happen when you're little kids, you need to work and try to resolve them so you won't be bothered by them when you're bigger. Maybe the people who did this had problems when they were kids that they never dealt with."

Before they leave, Ms. Walker walks back to a little girl in the last row. She wears a fancy red bandage around her head because of recent surgery. She is thinking not of dead children but of children who, like her, now know both the terror and the warmth of a hospital room.

"I think we should start praying for them and ask the Lord to take their pain away. 'Cuz they have needles stuck in them. I know."

Downstairs in Shelly Bridgwater's first-grade class, 13 students gather on their knees in a half moon. Ms. Bridgwater says that one girl, whose mother works near the federal building, didn't show up for school, "We haven't heard yet from the family so we still don't know," she says.

They all want to talk.

"My dad works in that building, but he was home with my baby brother when he heard on the news that his windows busted," says Meghan.

"Oh, I'm so glad," says Ms. Walker. "What about you?" she asks the boy beside Meghan.

"It was . . . kinda . . . scary. The boom . . . shook the building. I thought it was an earthquake."

Andrew's hand shoots up.

"Four people who go to my church work there, and one they still haven't found."

Again, the children search for the smallest detail to link them to the blast.

"I live 10 blocks away and some glass got on my shoes," says Tori. Behind her, the blackboard is filled with messages the kids will share by letter with strangers.

"I'm sorry you are sad," reads one line. "I'm happy that you are OK. I'm glad the glass did not cut you."

The longer the counselors stick around, the more shocking the revelations from the circle.

"My mom has a friend who had a baby in the day care that blew up," says Tina in a soft voice. She's in a deep blue dress and is squeezing herself further into the corner as she speaks.

"Someone told me that the guys are going after the children next," says Erica.

"We want to assure you no one is going to blow up schools. Those are rumors we want to stop. That'll never happen. Schools are very, very safe."

Mr. Walker and Ms. Scott head for the door.

"Are you coming back?" the children ask in unison.

"Yes," says Mr. Walker. "Whenever you need us, we'll be back."

Ms. Bridgwater asks her students to put their desks back in order. "This morning, their faces were all filled with that same look: 'How could this happen? Who did it? Why?'

"I told them we may never know why they did it. Some didn't want to leave their houses today, and I can't blame them. Every time I hear 'Oklahoma City' on the TV news I think, 'Oklahoma City? I think I used to live there.' "

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