"I told them to get underneath the desks, and I put them two by two, and I said, OK, we're going to play our musical instruments, and we're going to play worms, and we're going to play as loud as we can."
She didn't want the children to know what was going to happen.
She didn't want them to hear the roar of the storm.
"I told them to sing as loud as they could and if they got scared, they could scream," she said.
"But keep playing, keep playing, keep playing."
Afterward, Mayes was sitting outside on a curb with one of her students when his mom walked up. She was crying and hugged her son with her whole body, happy to finally have him in her arms.
Trenda Purcell had first gone to another place looking for him, but he wasn't there.
Relief flowed like tears.
"I'm doing great," Purcell told Cooper. "I am happy and pleased as punch with this lady right here because I think that she had an integral part in saving all the kids in her room. It was a miracle that kids walked out alive of that building."
Another grateful parent struggled to find the right words to thank his son's teacher at Briarwood, Julie Simon.
David Wheeler, the father of a third grader, was about 100 miles away when the tornado struck his son's school.
He drove as fast and he could, ran about a mile and hopped a ride on a couple of trucks.
"It was the worst day built in to one of the happiest moments of my life," he said about the moment he spotted his son.
"When I saw him running down the street with Ms. Simon, everything was OK for us at that moment."
Wheeler said there's no way to repay her for what she did.
Simon will forever be a part of their family.
"She is a hero," he said.
'His teacher saved his life'
Other teachers literally risked both life and limb, shielding students with their bodies.
Suzanne Haley was impaled by the leg of a desk protecting her children.
"We crowded the children under desks and me and a fellow teacher put ourselves in front of the desks that the children were under," she told CNN's Piers Morgan.
The roof and walls collapsed around them.
"Amazingly, by the grace of god, I kept it together," she said. "I couldn't go into hysterics in front of my children, in front of the other students. I had to be calm for them."
"It's nothing anybody wouldn't do," Haley said. "These children -- we see their smiles, their tears, every day, in and out, and we love them."
Another Briarwood teacher, Cindy Lowe, instructed students to move to an inner part of a room where there was a built-in bookcase as the tornado approached.