What was billed as an informational meeting for teachers turned into a session of sharing and healing.
"A lot of people in this district will need grief counseling, including myself," said Susan Pierce, the superintendent of public schools in Moore, Okla.
She teared up when greeted with a standing ovation on Wednesday from the hundreds of teachers who filled Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. With the district's communications systems still down following Monday's tornado, Pierce said a mass gathering was the best way to correct "information and misinformation" circulating throughout the school community.
She covered a variety of housekeeping matters. High school graduations will take place as scheduled on Saturday. The payroll system is nearly up and running again. The school year, interrupted abruptly a few days early, is officially over and done and teachers will not be docked for the days missed, although they're expected to show up Thursday to say goodbye to students who will be allowed into the remaining schools to gather their belongings.
But much of the meeting was spent applauding principals, teachers and support staff who had stepped up in the crisis.
She encouraged teachers to hug firefighters and police officers, while calling the people who work at the schools that suffered the worst damage "the greatest heroes I know today."
"People who think there's no prayer in public schools weren't around Monday afternoon," Pierce said, to applause from the gathering.
Pierce reminisced about preparing remarks for a retirement tribute that was to have taken place Tuesday. Before the storm, she said, she'd planned to recall lighthearted happy moments, but her thoughts kept going back to other trying times — previous storms and the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the violent murders of three schoolchildren.
"Monday night, it hit me, that those were the times I forged the relationships with the people that I was working with," Pierce said. "You know the strength of someone's character and their ability to stand by your side in times or turmoil."
Teachers gave frequent ovations. Although pain was evident on many faces — particularly among those from Briarwood and Plaza Towers, the two elementary schools destroyed by the storm — teachers were clearly ready to celebrate moments of bravery, the stories retold of their colleagues draping their own bodies over children, singing to them and holding their hands.
"Don't let anybody second-guess or question what you've accomplished," said Robert Romines, who will take over as schools superintendent in Moore in July.
Pierce said that teachers should feel free to tell their stories to reporters but should also feel under no obligation to do so.
"I was home last night in my pajamas when a reporter from The Wall Street Journal came to my door," Pierce said in one of several lighter moments that drew laughter. "My husband saved me from him."
Janet Barresi, Oklahoma's state superintendent for public instruction, assured teachers that her department was at their service. Already, the hallways of her building are stuffed with bottled water, diapers and other donated goods the Red Cross didn't have room to store.
Barresi said she's received pledges of help from all over the country and encouraged Moore teachers to come up with ideas of items they would need.
"Think big, folks," she said. "Give us a list of what you need and we're going to go shopping."
Pierce said she had also received offers of help too numerous to count.
"We have to tell you right now that we don't even know what we need," she said. "But we will soon, so leave us your name and phone number."