By Sarah Sticklen
JOPLIN, Mo. —
As I walked into Missouri Southern’s Leggett & Platt Athletic Center on May 22 for my high school graduation, all I could think was: “I cannot wait until this is all over. Then, I can finally relax.”
I was not the only graduate feeling this way. During the weeks prior to graduation, many of my close friends and I had traveled to Washington, D.C., for a national competition, arrived home just in time for testing (which would begin with calculus the morning after our return and end with world history the following week), taken finals, and hosted our own graduation parties while trying to attend everyone else’s.
As my family passed Target on Seventh Street and Range Line on our way to graduation, my mom realized she had left all the graduation tickets at home — all the way back across town. Thankfully, Joplin High School administrators sympathized with my mom, who was getting the treatment from her crabby children and husband, and let them in, sans tickets (it probably helped that I had procrastinated until the very last minute and picked up my tickets Friday afternoon, which I’m sure they remembered).
In the meantime, I had taken my annoyed self into the gym to stand with 444 other sweaty students who would rather be doing anything but preparing to sit through a two-hour graduation ceremony.
If it had not been for Will Norton, one of my best friends, who saw me outside and walked into the gym with me, wearing his favorite shiny silver shoes (more like tennis shoes than dress shoes, but extremely stylish nonetheless — which was the whole point) and his signature ear-to-ear grin, I would have been in a bad mood for the entire ceremony.
After graduation, we were told to pick up our actual diplomas. Two of my best friends were at the front of my line, so I cut in line with them. I was one of the first graduates to receive my diploma and leave MSSU. My dad was waiting for me outside. He is paranoid about storms, so he had sent the rest of my family to the car, and we met them there. Soon it began raining and the sirens sounded, but as we pulled onto Seventh Street the rain and the sirens stopped, even though the sky ahead of us was black as night. My dad turned on the weather station.
He contemplated stopping at his office on Seventh Street, but the tornado spotted was in Riverton, Kan., moving at 20 mph. Still, we raced home, mostly to avoid hail, not realizing we literally missed being engulfed in the tornado by minutes. The biggest concern going through my mind at the time was whether I should wear my glasses or contacts to the Project Graduation party.
As soon as we stepped foot in our house, it began hailing and the power went out. We thought at first what passed through town was a bad thunderstorm. It was not until my brother saw on Facebook that some friends lost their roof and that St. John’s Regional Medical Center had been hit and businesses on Range Line destroyed that we began to worry. Everything that occurred after that now blurs together. I texted all my friends: “Hey, are you OK?” The only one I did not hear back from was Will.
Sleep was impossible that night for everyone in Joplin. I still recall the unending sound of the sirens, the cars of my neighbors who had been called in to work at the hospital, and the fear over not hearing from Will. I received a text asking if I had any updates on Will’s whereabouts and informing me that a search committee had been formed. What search committee? I thought my friend’s information must be wrong, but when I ran into my parents’ room in those early morning hours they were both on their laptops, obviously distraught. That’s when they told me that Will was missing.
On Monday night, the day after the tornado, an NBC reporting team asked if it could interview some of my friends and me for the “Today” show. I could tell they had become captivated by my town and by my class. A crew member remarked to my mom how he could not believe that everyone in town seemed to know one another. My mom simply said, “Well, we’re a small town.” He just looked at her and replied, “50,000 is not a small town.” Kevin Tibbles, who interviewed my friends, was taken by surprise when he saw that all my graduation decorations from my party were still hanging up. I think for him it really clicked then how the mood had gone from celebration to tragedy.
There are several things I learned as a result of the storm. The simplest is life’s irony. A few weeks before graduation, our class voted on various silly awards like “Most Likely to be a Billionaire” and “Most Likely to Sleep Through College.” I was voted “Most Likely to be on CNN” and Will “Most Likely to be Seen on TV.”
I also learned that sometimes in life, all you can do is remain faithful and move forward.
I learned how strong my friends are. Many of my closest friends were pushed into maturity within minutes after our graduation, and proved to rise above adversity. In some weird way, I feel like we were the ones holding our parents together. Our parents felt guilty that our safety as children was almost compromised, and our innocence certainly was. They saw how we were grieving over a lost friend, Will, whose body was found almost a week after the storm hit.
They saw us working as volunteers, holding ourselves together on national news, or helping our friends who survived but lost their homes. We all knew we had to be strong to keep our parents strong; for a brief time as 17- and 18-year olds the parent-child relationship was reversed.
I learned the value of friendship and to never take a moment with friends and family for granted. The time before graduation seemed to me overwhelming and stressful; it was the last time I spent with my friends and family in normalcy, yet I spent most of the time complaining about obligations and other petty things, wishing for time to just quickly pass.
I would give anything to gain back those moments. It should not have taken an EF-5 tornado ravaging through my town to make me realize how much my family and friends mean to me and how blessed I am to have them in my life.
Sarah Sticklen is a member of the Joplin High School 2011 graduating class. She was the editor of The Spyglass, the school newspaper, and has worked in the Globe newsroom since the tornado on today’s Forever Bound project.