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OKLAHOMA CITY — The school's wall collapsed onto Jennifer Doan Rogers as she desperately tried to protect her third-grade students as a tornado ripped through their Oklahoma community. The young teacher had laid one of her hands on Nicolas McCabe, a 9-year-old with an infectious grin.
But it wasn't enough to protect him.
The monstrous tornado leveled part of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, killing six of her students — including Nicolas — last spring. Rogers, who was eight weeks pregnant at the time, lay buried under the rubble with a broken back. "He was actually the closest one to me, that I had my hand on, that didn't make it," she said.
Seven months later, Rogers gave birth to a boy. She named him after Nicolas.
Rogers, 31, said she had been thinking about it for some time. She was unsure if it would bring her more sadness to name her own son after her former student, a little boy who loved riding his go-kart and, according to his father, never met a stranger. He also was very close to his mother.
Ultimately, Rogers said, she and her husband decided on Jack Nicolas.
The new mother hoped her infant son, who was born in December, would help in her recovery from the injuries — both physical and emotional — that she suffered during the storm. The top-tier EF5 tornado, with winds exceeding 200 mph, ripped a 17-mile path of devastation through the Oklahoma City suburb on May 20. The storm killed 24 people and destroyed dozens of homes and buildings, including two elementary schools.
Nicolas' father, Scott McCabe, struggles to talk about losing his only son. But he said that Nicolas, regardless of someone's age or gender, would befriend them. He often shared his lunches with his friends.
Learning that Nicolas' teacher was naming her own son after his brought a wave of emotions, McCabe said.
"It's real hard. He was my only son. I mean I'm honored, yes, but she was the last one to touch Nicolas," McCabe said as he broke down in tears. "I don't know how to put it, she was the last one to see my little boy. And it's still kind of hard."
Rogers, too, is still recovering. She suffered a fractured spine and sternum. She refused pain medication for fear it would harm her baby, and she wore a back brace for several weeks.
"It was a lot harder than my other pregnancies, for sure," said Rogers, who also has two daughters, ages 6 and 3. "I was so limited. I couldn't do a whole lot. For a while after everything happened I was in a full brace and carrying him and it just, I mean, it was rough."
But she is determined to complete the necessary work to go back into the classroom. Though she knows it will be tough, she said she hopes to get approval to return to teaching next school year — at Plaza Towers.
The school is being rebuilt, this time with reinforced safe rooms that can withstand powerful storms.
"I just feel like there's a lot of me in there still," Rogers said. "I would think it's hard at the same time, but it'll be a new year and a new building."