Joplin seniors graduate after year of tragedy and triumph
A year ago, the deadliest tornado in six decades leveled Joplin, Missouri; President Obama commemorated that anniversary with a speech to the high school graduates who persevered.
There were tearful remembrances for lost classmates and jokes about spending their senior year in a converted department store.
But most of all for Joplin High School's Class of 2012, a chorus of rousing cheers and joyous celebrations marked their completion of high school under circumstance none of them could have envisioned just one year ago.
Monday night's graduation, which featured commencement speeches by President Barack Obama and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, capped a senior year for the 428 members of the Class of 2012 marked by tragedy, turmoil and perseverance.
The president visited southwest Missouri the day before the anniversary of the country's deadliest single tornado in six decades. The May 22, 2011, twister killed 161 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed thousands of buildings, including Joplin High. Five other Joplin schools were also destroyed, with four more among the damaged structures.
The twister arrived hours after last year's high school graduation, forever defining the Joplin High Class of 2011 and their younger classmates as well. The tornado's victims included two Joplin High students, sophomore Lantz Hare and senior Will Norton, a school system secretary and several younger students.
"They had to grow up the night of the storm," Joplin High principal Kerry Sachetta said. "They saw things they never should have had to see."
The high school seniors who assembled Monday night at Missouri Southern State University's campus gym also encountered a label they sought both to embrace and avoid, a refrain overheard in whispers or uttered bluntly at soccer games, summer camps and national academic competitions: Here come the tornado kids from Joplin.
School officials vowed to return to class on time. They turned a vacant big-box retail store at the city's only mall into a temporary Joplin High for juniors and seniors, with freshmen and 10th-graders at another location across town. A middle school relocated to an industrial park warehouse.
"I'm proud to be a member of the Northpark Mall graduates of 2012," senior class president Chloe Hadley joked. "We have been through the unbelievable, and have become stronger and closer than ever before."
Despite the less than ideal location, Joplin students embraced their return to a school they saw as a refuge, a safe haven in a town otherwise gone awry, said Joplin High English teacher Brenda White.
"Those kids who lost something needed normalcy," she said. "And there was no real place to go. But school is a normal place."
The Joplin tornado helped tighten bonds, diminish cliques, elevate school spirit and strengthen community ties, students and teachers said. Disciplinary violations declined dramatically — with just two fights through the entire school year.
"Once we had been through (everything) this last year, people just weren't interested in a lot of the general high school nonsense," said graduating senior Derek Carter, who will attend the University of Alabama in the fall.
With few textbooks to salvage from the rubble, the school overhauled its approach to teaching and embraced a technology-first approach, thanks to an estimated $1 million donation from the United Arab Emirates that helped equip each Joplin high school student with a laptop computer.
The transition wasn't entirely smooth, White said.
"I have never worked so hard in my life at any job as I have this year," she said. "Everything was brand new. There were no books. You had to get your own lessons. You had to get the kids up to speed. You had to get up to speed."
And the steady attention from outside eventually grew tiresome, said Carter, an honor student who shared the stage with Obama and the governor Monday night.
"We are kind of known across the nation for the tornado. I'd almost rather not be known than to be known for something so tragic," he said.
Graduating senior Siri Ancha, who also addressed her classmates Monday night, described a similar experience at an academic camp she attended in Texas just two weeks after the tornado, and when she, Carter and other members of the school's U.S. Constitution team attended a national competition in Washington last month.
"That's just how we're characterized now, as 'the tornado kids,'" she said. "They weren't really interested in who you are, what are your hobbies."
Obama urged the students to not let their young lives be defined by the tornado but instead by the city's resiliency in forging ahead.
"The story of Joplin isn't just what happened that day, it's the story of what happened the next day. And the day after that. And all the days and weeks and months that followed," he said. "As your city manager, Mark Rohr, has said, the people here chose to define the tragedy 'not by what happened to us, but by how we responded.' The Class of 2012, that story is yours. It's part of you now."
On Tuesday, the Joplin school system will symbolically break ground at three new schools being built to replace those lost last year, including a new high school expected to open in 2014.
Ancha, who plans to study medicine in a combined six-year degree program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, now accepts being known as a tornado kid.
"For the longest time, I thought I had to go to college some place far away, I had to leave this place," she said. "But I'm glad I'm only going to be three hours away now. Because being a part of this town has meant so much to me, especially this year. Not just because of the tornado. Joplin is a great community. I definitely have the Joplin pride now."