Just a day before the one-year anniversary of the May 22 tornado that ravaged Joplin, thousands gathered in the same gymnasium used as a temporary shelter to honor the Joplin High School class of 2012 at commencement exercises Monday night at Missouri Southern.
In the same gymnasium where Joplin celebrated the graduation of its class of 2011 just before the storm hit, President Barack Obama quoted the poem “Youth,” written by Joplin native Langston Hughes.
“We have tomorrow, bright before us like a flame. Yesterday, a night-gone thing, a sun-down name. And dawn today, broad arch above the road we came. We march,” Obama said, quoting Hughes.
“To the people of Joplin and the class of 2012, the road has been hard and the day has been long, but we have tomorrow, so we march,” Obama said in his closing remarks. “We march together and you are leading the way because you’re from Joplin.”
Obama’s remarks were just one highlight of the graduation ceremony, which also featured Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon as an honorary guest.
Nixon spoke of attending the Missouri Southern commencement ceremonies the day before the tornado hit, where he spoke on the same stage, and how it marked a time of optimism and a time to look ahead.
“The next day changed everything,” Nixon said. “The next day changed us all. But what a difference a year makes. Tonight we gather as we have so many times in the past year, to celebrate another Joplin milestone. Joplin High School class of 2012, congratulations, we are so proud of you.
“This is a community of optimists,” Nixon said. “This is a community of believers. This is a community of fighters. This is a community that never gave up, never gave in and with hope in its heart and steel in its spine has come back stronger and better than ever.”
Obama and Nixon each received standing ovations, but the crowd reserved its biggest roar for the introduction of the class of 2012.
Senior Class President Chloe Hadley said she was proud to be a member of the “Northpark Mall graduates of 2012,” adding that the students have gone through the unthinkable but have become stronger than before.
Derek Carter, a Summa Cum Laude graduate, said during his remarks that his class has learned how to deal with the realities of life. Siri Ancha, another Summa Cum Laude graduate, asked her classmates to reflect on their past and anticipate their future.
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“This past year did not create what we know as the Joplin spirit, but rather shined a light on it,” Ancha said.
An emotional Dr. C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin schools, offered the class two pieces of advice.
“No. 1, if at first you don't succeed, do it like your mother told you to do it in the first place,” Huff said. “No. 2, never forget that no matter where you are, or what you do, the Joplin family loves you and believes in you and we are so very proud of you.”
Still, there no disguising the evening's most-important speaker.
The president opened his remarks by saying a commencement speaker has two duties: to “keep it short and sweet,” and to inspire.
“We can define our own lives not by what happens to us, but by how we respond,” Obama said. “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 character, hope.”
Obama told the students to let this be the central lesson that emerges from the tragedy.