Ms. Russell was drawing lines on the chalkboard for a handwriting lesson when the giant tree came crashing through the window.
I was seven years old but I remember it like it was seven minutes ago.
My elementary school was of pretty good size, stretched far and went up several floors. We were on the top floor in a class on the front of the building. And on the ground below, workers were cutting down a very large, very old tree to avoid “potential hazards of a tree that size.”
To this day, I still don’t know why they didn’t cut it down several pieces at a time rather than trying to cut across the bottom like it was out in a wide open forest somewhere. The school faced a very busy main road, and I guess they took every precaution to make sure the tree didn’t land in traffic. Too bad they didn’t take that same precaution with the school building full of children in the middle of a sunny autumn afternoon.
Those of us that cared, leaned forward in our seats straining to hear Ms. Russell yell simple cursive writing instructions over the sound of the buzzing chainsaw. “The capital ‘Q’ looks like a large number ‘2’.” I remember that. I remember her gray turtle neck under her gray and burgundy argyle print jumper dress and burgundy shoes that looked to me like tap shoes.
I remember the sound of the saw fading, and then the eeriest silence you can imagine. Then a slow snapping sound.
Then something louder and faster.
I remember Ms. Russell’s eyes growing large. And I remember her turning and running out of the room. (presumably to go for help?) And the sound of 40 little heads and bodies turning around to face the window just in time to see what to me always looked like the giant hand of God coming through the window to come and snatch us all.
Then the loudest most horrendous bang. Greater than you could ever imagine. Loud and flat.
Then the sound of scurrying feet, and shattering, flying glass, a few screams.
I remember other teachers and students elsewhere in the building rushing to the hall to find out what the noise was. They said the whole building shook. I remember one girl, her red shirt and dark jeans, coming out of the room long after we had all exited. She was crying and holding her neck. I didn’t see any blood but I heard there was some.
It’s odd how all these years later, the memory of it is still so clear and still causes me to visibly shake. Just like I did standing in the hallway afterwards trying to put together in my head what had just happened.
Needless to say the damage was pretty substantial. The tree broke out every window in our class and a couple windows in the class below ours. Roof damage, too, I heard. Some weeks later during the repair there was a fire in the classroom; and another one not long after that. The school year was nearly over by the time we were able to fully move back in, but to me the room looked different. Not completely different, but just not quite the same.
Aside from structural damages, there were the less obvious things.
I asked to be moved closer to the front of the classroom so I could “see better” but mostly because I never wanted to be that far from the door again. To this day, I always look for exits and mentally plan at least two escape routes from every room I enter.
Very loud noises still make me jumpy but so does unexpected absolute complete and utter dead silence.
A friend of mine pointed out that I have a fear of largely irrational things happening, like my bed crashing through the floor in the middle of the night, or being in a building that collapses. But then how rational is it to have a tree just fall into your classroom?
Turn around and look out the window and then imagine something large, horrible, and ugly just inches away from breaking through it. Recognize what’s about to happen, and they try and deny that it’s happening. Notice how a rush of sound can almost sound like you’ve gone completely deaf. Feel your surroundings shake. Get dizzy. Experience that tightness that starts at the base of your spine, and spreads up your back, over your shoulders, circles your neck and chokes you. Imagine what it’s like to try and reason out the unreasonable. Now feel the disorientation of running at top speed in a crowd of others feeling the same, and without even really knowing where you’re running to.
And now be thankful if you can’t relate.