By Kelsey Ryan
JOPLIN, Mo. —
It ended and it began with graduation.
“It’s brought forth a journey that’s going to be long,” said Skylar Duncan, one of 431 students who graduated Monday night from Joplin High School. “It’s something that’s going to be impacted on this town. It’s an important day for this community.”
Duncan and his twin, Sabrina, are a year apart in school. Sabrina Duncan graduated on May 22, 2011, and after the ceremony at Missouri Southern State University, she and some of her family members drove to the 15th Street Wal-Mart to pick up her cake, despite hearing the tornado sirens. When they got there, they found the building in lockdown mode. The tornado hit minutes later while they were in their car.
Sabrina Duncan said she still feels anxiety when it storms, but it’s getting better.
“We were very lucky,” she said. “It seemed like our graduation was forgotten really quickly, which kind of bothered me because it was a big day for me, but it’s understandable as well because our graduation is such a small thing compared to what happened that day. But I’ll always remember graduation as a good thing.”
For many residents, Monday night’s ceremony was a sobering reminder of where they were a year ago when an EF-5 tornado devastated the town, eventually claiming 161 lives.
But it also was a symbol of triumph.
“As I look out at this class and across this city, what is clear is that you’re the source of inspiration to me, to this state, to this country and to people all over the world,” said President Barack Obama in his remarks during commencement, which was held in a packed Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at MSSU.
“But here in Joplin, you’ve also learned that we have the power to grow from these experiences. We can define our own lives not by what happens to us, but by how we respond. We can choose to carry on, and make a difference in the world. And in doing so, we can make true what’s written in Scripture, that “tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character and hope.”
Obama visited with the graduates before entering the ceremony.
“He gave us a little pep talk and told us we did really good, and then shook all of our hands,” said graduate Hailey Carpenter after she received her diploma. “Everybody’s. It was awesome.”
During his comments to the class, Superintendent C.J. Huff noted that members of the class of 2012 have nearly $2 million in scholarships to attend institutions of higher learning. He also said there were 40 percent more students in this class who had cum laude honors than the previous record, and that more students in this class took honors level courses, and they scored higher than any class in JHS history.
“Each of you has won the hearts of the entire country by doing what you do best: by just being you. Never, ever forget that no matter where you are or what you do, your Joplin family loves you, believes in you. We are so very proud of you,” said a visibly emotional Huff, who received a standing ovation.
Gov. Jay Nixon noted that the schools opened on time last August, and commended school and city officials. He also commended the community on rebuilding.
“I know it is safe to say we are all dramatically different people than where we were when we came to JHS four years ago,” said Derek Carter, a senior who spoke at graduation. “In the last year alone, this class has become fully aware of what life can throw at you. One thing is certain: Life will continue to be hard and will continue to move on. We may never again have the pain or opportunities we’ve had in the last four years.”
“We went to school in a mall, Katy Perry announced our senior prom, and the president of the United States is at our graduation,” said Siri Ancha, one of the senior speakers. “These experiences definitely set us apart from the rest of the world.”
Students say the tornado led to many opportunities despite the tragedy. The United Arab Emirates in August donated $1 million toward laptops for every high school student. Singer Barry Manilow donated truckloads of band instruments. Local businesses came together to give the students a fairy-tale-themed prom in April.
But there also has been a darker reality for the students. In the first few months after the storm, school officials saw an impact. The school hired additional counselors for students, and suicide prevention programs were implemented for some students as young as fifth-graders.
The May 22 tornado and what came afterward have become a defining event for the city.
“No one in Joplin will forget this year,” said Judy Gurley, a high school math teacher whose home was ruined by water damage from the storm. “When you’re growing up, you talk about what you did before you graduated high school and post-graduation. Now, the timetable is pre-tornado and post-tornado. We tell time by the tornado now.”
With Joplin High School destroyed, administrators decided to split the upperclassmen and lowerclassmen, sending the seniors and juniors to a converted former Shopko store at Northpark Mall.
During the commencement, senior class president Chloe Hadley told the crowd she was “proud to be a member of the Northpark Mall graduates of 2012.”
“If it hadn’t been for the tornado, it would have been a regular school year,” said senior Shelby Norvell, who, as editor of the school’s yearbook, helped piece together the memories of the past year, both good and bad. “A regular, teenage school year.”
Norvell’s grandparents, who lived on Iowa Avenue across from Joplin High School, lost their home in the storm. Within minutes after the storm had passed, Norvell, her parents and her boyfriend went to find her grandparents. She sat in the parking lot of her destroyed high school, observing the devastation.
“I didn’t know what to think other than ‘What are we going to do now?’” she said. “I mean, I’m a well-brought-up, going-to-church girl, and I just kept thinking, ‘Why?’ Memories overflowed. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just sat there. For me, it was moments of silence. No crying.”
More than 3,000 Joplin students lived in the path of the storm. Norvell said she has noticed a change in students, and she thinks they’re now held to a higher standard by their teachers, families and community.
“You see a lot more respect toward other students,” Norvell said. “You see a lot less drama. You see a little more love. This community is so tight. It has its arms wrapped around itself.”
SENIOR CLASS PRESIDENT CHLOE HADLEY delivered the welcoming remarks. Seniors Derek Carter, Siri Ancha and Michelle Barchak also addressed the crowd. Student council president Julia Lewis gave a farewell speech.