Obama visits Joplin graduates one year after tornado

Photo courtesy: Mike Gullett

Mike Gullett

Photo courtesy: Mike Gullett

In the wake of last year’s tornado, there were few things more symbolic of the destruction than Joplin High School and the graduating class of 2011.

Joplin’s graduation ceremony ended just minutes before the storm hit, and at a time when those students should have been celebrating one of life’s crowning achievements, many found themselves scrambling for shelter.

Many students found themselves homeless in the hours after graduating. Others fared worse, like Will Norton, who was killed on his way home from his graduation when the Hummer he and his dad were in was caught in the tornado. Norton was ripped from the vehicle. He didn’t survive.

Now, a year later, another graduating class has become a symbol in Joplin, only this time, the group is a beacon of hope and progress. On Monday, those 431 symbols crossed the stage to receive their high school diplomas.

Missouri Southern’s Leggett & Platt Athletic Center was deafening as the graduates entered the gymnasium, louder for them than for President Obama’s arrival on his first trip to Joplin since last year.

Kerry Sachetta, Joplin High School principal, recognized students, faculty, administrators and special guests to open the ceremony, making special note to President Obama.

“And Mr. President, often times, our part of the country is known as the heart of America, and I’d like to think that at least for one day, Joplin is the heartbeat of America,” he said.

Sachetta, like everyone else, noted this class’s resilience, overcoming a senior year filled with enough ups and downs to fill and entire scholastic career and a large enough media microscope to make the Kardashians jealous.

“They have let the world see what they are made of, and what they are made of is something special,” Sachetta said.

Sachetta was the first to praise the students, but he wouldn’t be the last. One by one, administrators, school board members, Governor Jay Nixon, and President Obama stepped to the podium to honor the graduating class of 2012.

Obama, wearing a WillDaBeast bracelet in remembrance of Norton, told students they should be proud of themselves but more importantly that America was proud of them.

“The job of a commencement speaker – aside from keeping it short and sweet – is to inspire,” Obama said. “But as I look out at this class, and across this city, what’s clear is that you’re the source of inspiration today. To me. To this state. To this country. And to people all over the world.”

Simply graduating wasn’t the lone inspiring accomplishment. This graduating class is one that garnered nearly $2 million in scholarships to various universities across the country according to Superintendent CJ Huff. This is a graduating class with 40 percent more students with Cum Laude status than ever before.

Quite frankly, this is a class that, despite insurmountable odds, succeeded in a way nobody ever imagined they could.

“This past year did not create what we know as the Joplin spirit, but merely put a spotlight on it…” Siri Ancha, graduating senior, said in her speech to students. “Just as this town has, we all have the ability to overcome and astound society or more importantly, astound ourselves.”

And through all their accomplishments, it was Huff who pointed out who they really were and what they really stood for.

“If I could have picked a motto for this class, it would have simply been this: no excuses,” he said.

That’s the way these students responded to the adversity.

Despite losing their high school to the tornado, they were in class on time, working in less than stellar conditions to finish their high school education. Despite some students losing everything, these students still had the time of their lives at prom. And some students, like Quinton Anderson, suffered major injuries but still found a way to be examples for their fellow students. No excuses.

According to President Obama, that’s just the spirit of Joplin.

“Yes, you will encounter obstacles along the way,” the president said. “Yes, you will face setbacks and disappointments. But you are from Joplin. And you are from America. No matter how tough times get, you will be tougher. No matter what life throws at you, you will be ready. You will not be defined by the difficulties you face, but how you respond – with strength, and grace, and a commitment to others.”

Obama called on students to look to the future, knowing some of them would leave Joplin. He pointed out that Joplin would always be in them.

The president mentioned “Youth,” a poem by Joplin native Langston Hughes, in that call.

“To the people of Joplin, and the class of 2012: The road has been hard. The day has been long. But we have tomorrow, and so we march,” Obama said. “We march, together, and you are leading the way.”