Obama praises Joplin high school graduates after a ‘long and improbable journey’ as he delivers commencement address
It falls to the speaker at any high school graduation to inspire the young people as they set out into the adult world with a sense of purpose and hope for the future. But as Barack Obama made clear at the commencement ceremony at Joplin high school in Missouri, on this occasion the inspiration flowed wholly in the other direction.
A year ago, virtually to the hour, Joplin students collected their diplomas on the same stage at Missouri Southern State University on which Obama stood now. As they were driving home the worst tornado since US records began in 1950 struck their town; one graduate, Will Norton, was sucked to his death through the sun-roof of his father’s car.
In the space of 32 minutes, as Obama recalled, the storm took “thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses, and 161 of your neighbours, your friends, and your family members”.
This was Obama’s second visit to Joplin in a year, the first a week after the twister left its deadly calling card on 22 May 2011. By any measure, the intervening months have been extraordinary.
“In a town of 50,000 people,” Obama recalled, “nearly 50,000 more came to help in the weeks after the tornado – perfect strangers who’ve never met you, and would never ask for anything in return.”
The president invoked the volunteer who came from Japan to pay back to America the help his country had received after its tsunami. He name-checked Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt for their $500,000 support for Joplin, but also mentioned the boy aged nine who raised $360 by washing cars.
United Arab Emirates got a shout out too, for donating a brand new laptop to every Joplin high school student, as did a local baker, Liz Easton, who lost her home and her business but still had the energy to make 1,500 cupcakes for the school prom.
It is perhaps too much to expect a sitting president in an election year to deliver a whole commencement speech, in front of TV cameras at prime time, without having one dig at his opponent. “I imagine that as you begin the next stage in your journey,” Obama said to the Joplin graduates, “you will encounter greed and selfishness; ignorance and cruelty. You will meet people who try to build themselves up by tearing others down; who believe looking after others is only for suckers.”
But that was the only whiff of politicking. The rest was devoted to the spirit of Joplin and its students, rising again against the odds.
“Some of life’s strongest bonds are the ones we forge when everything around us seems broken. And even though I expect some of you will ultimately end up leaving Joplin, I’m convinced that Joplin will never leave you.”
Today, Joplin high school is nothing more than a mammoth pile of rubble. It sits in the centre of the city as a jolting reminder of the huge challenge that still lies ahead and of the tragedy that came before.
In total, seven Joplin school children lost their lives as well as one teacher. Half the district’s school buildings were damaged or destroyed, and 3,200 students lost their classrooms.
Those receiving their diplomas on Monday had to spend the year cooped up in a converted corner of the main city shopping mall.
In the audience at the commencement was James Dobbs, 19, who had come to watch his twin brother Andrew receive his diploma. Andrew had been forced to resit his final year, and the going, James said, had been tough.
“It was hard studying in the mall. It was definitely a temporary arrangement. But he got through it, and I’m proud of my brother for doing it.”
Ashley Taylor, 16, has one more year to go before she graduates. She said that the school was stronger for having survived the trauma.
“We really pulled through. We are still going strong a year afterwards.”
Also among the Class of 2012 sitting in front of Obama was Quinton Anderson, whose story is exceptional even for such an exceptional year. He was picked up by the tornado and tossed like a rag doll, and woke up three days later in hospital to be told both his parents had died in the storm.
After six weeks of surgery, he had to teach himself to walk again. But he persisted and went on to captain the school football team and has now graduated with honours.
Obama recalled Anderson’s motto: “Always take that extra step”.
“Today, after a long and improbable journey for Quinton, for Joplin, and for the entire class of 2012, that extra step is about to take you towards whatever future you hope for; toward whatever dreams you hold in your hearts.”