Spring, Miss Nelson's Class

Frank McCourt Memoir Prize Winner


Consider the things that have to happen for a tornado to form. A tornado starts miles above us. In the atmosphere a vortex of air, a mesocyclone, rotates around a supercell thunderstorm way up out of reach, until heavy rainfall from the storm starts to drag the air down to our level. This cool atmospheric air hits the warm air of the storm and begins to rotate. That’s your wall cloud. By this point the mesocyclone has shrunk from miles wide to a few hundred yards wide, and that newfound focus allows it to siphon air from a smaller and smaller target on the ground. Low atmospheric pressure pulls it down until dirt and trash and cows get sucked up and there you go.

But what of a mesocyclone? A mesocyclone needs a rotating updraft from a supercell. And a supercell can’t give it without just the right change in wind direction and wind speed. That wind may start hundreds of miles away, over the ocean even, rustling curtains and teasing veils until it hits the right cell. Squirrel finding a nut, et cetera. You see how this can carry on. The point is that in 1997, there were too many fourth graders at Valley Elementary School, and so our class, Miss Nelson’s class, was put in a trailer 100 yards from the building, and then the
storms came.

Growing up in Alabama, I measured childhood in four seasons: summer; football season; Christmas season; and right after, stretching across the calendar until May, was always the longest season—tornado season. There are meteorological reasons why Alabama gets so many tornadoes, but meteorological explanations are irrelevant to a 10-year-old in the same way the reasons you live in Alabama are irrelevant: You just live there because you live there, and because you live there, you get tornadoes. They were the first tax I learned to pay. Knowing the details didn’t make them any less terrifying.

To manage things, I became an intense meteorological autodidact. I believe now that many children in Tornado Alley do this, and I think it’s because the more you learn about tornadoes, the more you realize they exist within a randomness no adult can truly predict. In a weird sense, living with tornadoes was empowering; it put me on the same plane as my parents. Severe weather played for me the same role war might have played had I grown up in a different place and time, a violence we all experienced that only made sense opaquely. Tornadoes were the only thing that forced everyone to stop their lives to pay attention. All kids have things they obsess over. Tornadoes were mine. They were the disparate images upon which I couldn’t impose a narrative line. They were always out of reach.

I struggled to understand their pattern, which of course is only a loose pattern. They never came in summer and never came in fall. Tornadoes need instability, some quick switch of hot and cold. This made winter a decent candidate, when warm Gulf winds blew north around Christmas, but it made spring the perfect candidate.

Our family had two tornado stories. The first was at the beach, before I was born, when my brother Brad spotted a waterspout over the ocean and called out, “Look Mommy, the letter I!” The story was told as a joke, the punchline an itemized recounting of all the beach-gear just dragged down the boardwalk and then we all had to slog right back.

The second story was shortly after I was born, when a tornado ghosted our roof in the middle of the night. I was grabbed and taken downstairs, the whole bit. Nothing happened beyond the uprooting of a large tree in the backyard, which my brothers christened a neighborhood tourist spot and charged money to climb around on. To this day I have never actually seen a tornado, but I’ve been under at least 50 tornado warnings. They are always coming. I have seen pine trees bow to the portentous green of a southern sky; I have heard sirens in every key. I can determine the threat by the timbre of ABC 33/40 meteorologist James Spann’s voice, and I know to run like hell if he’s taken off his jacket. But that’s as far as it’s ever gone for me, though as a kid with a weak stomach, it was more than far enough.

About 60 people are killed every year by tornadoes, or roughly the same number of people who are electrocuted by their own appliances. But that’s junky math. Five years ago tornadoes killed 553 people, about the same number of people who were killed by elephants. That’s the chance game of the tornado. One year a sparky toaster, the next a stomping elephant. And that’s the trouble: we never know how long the odds are, just that they always catch up with a certain number of us.

The year 1997 was a bad one for tornadoes. Not because they came—that was ’98, ’04, ’11—but because they bluffed, and a tornado’s bluff is as bad as its roar when you’re 10. That year there were three. All came late in the school year, each in the last hour before the bell, while my class sat inside a 20 x 90, American-made, aluminum-lined, double-wide trailer parked a football field away from the school building. We were the only ones chance had excluded from the building, and so we grew close to one another, diplomats in our foreign post. The trailer was our own boxed-in world, and it held everything we needed. Miss Nelson was the most tender teacher we had known—we were hers and only hers. One day she brought in a video of her winning a waterbed on The Price Is Right. 

Storm mornings always started warm. A tornado starts miles away on a storm morning—as a blue cloud edging over Chandalar Hill, an extra ounce of hug from your mother. A warm wind through the bus window. A flittering glance of teachers whispering, half a sandwich you don’t want. On storm mornings Miss Nelson loved us through distraction, scattering worksheets that allowed her to fiddle with the radio behind her desk and cut furrowed glances to the intercom. She would loiter with us in the building after lunch, twiddling around the library and the art wing before inching us toward the last door at the end of the hall. We could see the trailer out the window, dull white in an overgrown lot far off. A meteorologist called out from a TV in the teacher’s lounge. You learn your counties on a storm morning, or wish you had. When she could stall no more, Miss Nelson would push open the heavy door—were we under warning? Just counties west, nothing yet—and lead us back outside, her bobbed hair blowing, to mark the afternoon together.

Three bells will be the sign it’s on us. But we see it happen first. While we’re scribbling away the time, the trailer falls into shadow. Skinny oaks become jittery silhouettes outside. The room begins to go ambient, yellow, then purple, then green. We are sitting without a word, just looking around. Miss Nelson puts some music on. The room finally falls dark and streetlights blink on through the windows. A long roll of thunder somewhere far off. We are listening for the cue. Staccato rain pops on the aluminum roof. Miss Nelson has no phone out here, just an intercom box tacked to the wall as her only connection to the building. She can buzz the office, but not without us hearing what she would ask them. A band of rain slaps us sideways, sheets of water against our walls, wave beyond wave. A white streak flashes the windows and the sky detonates.

Three bells sound from the school building. Miss Nelson rises and walks to the door, flinging it open. In that one motion, soaked. She bends to our level and starts pointing toward the school building. The county warning sirens begin to fire, rising from a low hum to an air-raid scream. You can hear the different sirens wailing around the city, from Crosscreek to Chadwick, sentinels at our outposts. One of them is on a pole not 20 yards away, shrieking wildly over whatever it is Miss Nelson is trying to tell us. Inside the school, children are grabbing heavy books and slogging to the hall, giggling their way to safety. We are inconsolable, bawling, filing out of the trailer like wobbly paratroopers into chaos. Miss Nelson’s mouth moves as she meets our faces, an offering of comfort perhaps as she lays a hand on each of our backs. I can’t hear what she’s saying until I’m right beneath her. Lightning plays off the bodies of my friends running across the blacktop, and I feel Miss Nelson’s hand brush my shoulders. She’s only been repeating one word. Run. Run.

So much ground to cover in a hundred yards. So much to outrun. When we are young we believe there are safe places to shield us from the world; when we are older we know this is a myth, that all places get violated. As we age we watch them go, one by one. Our parents split up, a coyote takes the cat, the girl at school in the bicycle helmet drowns at the bottom of a lake. They leave us in an instant, and are gone forever, and after we lose them we can only imagine what it was like before we knew they could go. You can tuck your way to the hall and nestle beneath your science book, but a certain number of people have been caught by the odds. They’re coming through the door in sopping clothes, their eyes watery, having had something taken from them everyone else can still possess. It will happen to them twice more that year, then to everyone in the years ahead, our safe places breached by a doctor’s pursed lips, by the crash of shattering glass, by an officer’s knock at the door, by the words we need to talk, and off our brains will go to find a peaceful moment before it all changed, some memory, some morning, some place that’s still protected, and the only one we can land on is an ordinary childhood afternoon back in Miss Nelson’s trailer, when she put the air conditioner on, unaware the janitor had been by to clean it, and how as she turned the knob the freezing air rushed through the vents, catching the last traces of soap, and thousands of bubbles began to pour out, on and on, over our laughter, over our heads, as she covered her mouth in wonder.