A year after a tornado devastated the Missouri town of Joplin and killed 161 people, President Obama on Monday night addressed the graduating seniors of Joplin High School, telling them that their resilience in the face of disaster was an inspiration to people everywhere.
“You’ve grown up quickly over the last year,” he said. “You’ve learned at a younger age than most that we can’t always predict what life has in store for us. No matter how we might try to avoid it, life can bring heartache .... 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.”
Here’s the full text of his speech as prepared for delivery and provided by the White House:
Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery
Joplin High School Commencement Address
Missouri Southern State University
Monday, May 21, 2012
Good evening Superintendent Huff, Principal Sachetta, faculty, parents, family, friends, the people of Joplin, and the class of 2012. Congratulations on your graduation, and thank you for allowing me the honor of playing a small part in this special day.
The job of a commencement speaker – aside from keeping it short and sweet – is to inspire. 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.
Last year, the road that led you here took a turn that no one could’ve imagined. Just hours after the class of 2011 walked across this stage, the most powerful tornado in six decades tore a path of devastation through Joplin that was nearly a mile wide and thirteen long. In only 32 minutes, it took thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses, and 161 of your neighbors, your friends, and your family members. It took Will Norton, who had just left this auditorium with a diploma in his hand. It took Lantz Hare, who should’ve received his diploma next year.
By now, most of you have probably relived those 32 minutes again and again. Where you were. What you saw. When you knew for sure that it was over. The first contact you had with someone you love. The first day you woke up in a world that would never be the same.
And yet, the story of Joplin is the story of what happened the next day. And the day after that. And all the days and weeks that followed. As your city manager, Mark Rohr, has said, the people here chose to define the tragedy “not by what happened to us, but by how we responded.”
That story is part of you now. You’ve grown up quickly over the last year. You’ve learned at a younger age than most that we can’t always predict what life has in store for us. No matter how we might try to avoid it, life can bring heartache. Life involves struggle. Life will bring loss.
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 character, hope.”
Of all that’s come from this tragedy, let this be the central lesson that guides you and sustains you through whatever challenges lie ahead.
I imagine that as you begin the next stage in your journey, 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 you are from Joplin. So you will remember, you will know, just how many people there are who see life differently; those who are guided by kindness and generosity and quiet service.
You’ll always remember that in a town of 50,000 people, 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. One of them was Mark Carr, who drove 600 miles from Rocky Ford, Colorado with a couple of chainsaws and his three little children. One man traveled all the way from Japan, because he remembered that Americans were there for his country after last year’s tsunami, and he wanted the chance to pay it forward. Many were AmeriCorps volunteers who have chosen to leave their homes and stay here until Joplin is back on its feet.
There was the day that Mizzou’s football team rolled into town with an 18-wheeler full of donated supplies. Of all places, they were assigned to help out on Kansas Avenue. While they hauled away washing machines and refrigerators from the debris, they met Carol Mann, who had just lost the house she lived in for eighteen years. Carol, who works part-time at McDonald’s even as she struggles with seizures, told the players that she had even lost the change purse that held her lunch money. So one of them went back to the house, dug through the rubble, and returned the purse with $5 inside.
As Carol’s sister said, “So much of the news you hear is so negative. But those boys renewed my faith that there are so many good people in the world.”
That’s what you’ll remember. Because you are from Joplin.
You will remember the half million dollar donation that came from Angelina Jolie and Missouri native Brad Pitt. But you’ll also remember the $360 that was delivered by a nine-year-old boy who organized his own car wash. You’ll remember the school supplies donated by your neighboring towns, but also the brand new laptops that were sent from the United Arab Emirates – a small country on the other side of the world. When it came time for your prom, make-up artist Melissa Blayton organized an effort that collected over a 1,000 donated prom dresses, FedEx kicked in for the corsages, and Joplin’s own Liz Easton, who lost her home and her bakery in the tornado, made 1,500 cupcakes for the occasion.
There are so many good people in the world. There is such a decency, a bigness of spirit, in this country of ours. Remember that. Remember what people did here. And like the man from Japan who came to Joplin, make sure to pay it forward in your own life.
Just as you have learned the goodness of people, so have you learned the power of community. As take on the roles of colleague and neighbor and citizen, you will encounter all kinds of divisions between groups – divisions of race, and religion, and ideology. You’ll meet people who like to disagree just for the sake of being disagreeable; who prefer to play up their differences and instead of focusing on what they have in common, or where they can cooperate.
But you are from Joplin. So you will know that it’s always possible for a community to come together when it matters most.
After all, a lot of you could’ve spent your senior year scattered throughout different schools, far from home. But Dr. Huff asked everyone to pitch in so that school started on time, right here in Joplin. He understood the power of this community, and the power of place. And so teachers worked extra hours, and coaches improvised. The mall was turned into classrooms, and the food court became a cafeteria – which sounds like a bit of an improvement. Sure, the arrangements might have been a little noisy, and a little improvised, but you hunkered down, and you made it work. Together.
Together, you decided that this city wasn’t about to spend the next year arguing over every detail of the recovery effort. At the very first town meeting, every citizen was handed a Post-It note, and asked to write down their goals and their hopes for Joplin’s future. More than 1,000 notes covered an entire wall, and became the blueprint that architects are following to this day.
Together, the businesses that were destroyed in the tornado decided that they weren’t about to walk away from the community that made their success possible. Even if it would’ve been easier. Even if it would’ve been more profitable to go somewhere else. Today, more than half the stores that were damaged on the Range Line are up and running again. Eleven more are planning to join them. And every time a company re-opens its doors, people cheer the cutting of a ribbon that bears the town’s new slogan: “Remember. Rejoice. Rebuild.”
I’ve been told that before the tornado, many of you couldn’t wait to leave here once high school was finally over. Your student council president, Julia Lewis, said, “We never thought Joplin was anything special; but seeing how we responded to something that tore our community apart has brought us together. Everyone has a lot more pride in our town.” It’s no surprise, then, that many of you have decided to stick around, and go to colleges that aren’t too far from home.
That’s the power of community. That’s the power of shared effort. 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. The people who went through this with you; the people you once thought of as simply neighbors or acquaintances; classmates or even friends – the people in this auditorium tonight – they are family now. They are family.
In fact, my deepest hope for all of you is that as you begin this new chapter in your life, you will bring that spirit of Joplin to every place you travel and everything you do. You can serve as a reminder that we’re not meant to walk this road alone; that we’re not expected to face down adversity by ourselves. We need each other. We’re important to each other. We’re stronger together than we are on our own.
It is this spirit that’s allowing all of you to rebuild this city. It’s the same spirit we need right now to help rebuild America. And you, class of 2012, will help lead this effort. You’re the ones who will help build an economy where every child can count on a good education; where everyone who is willing to put in the effort can find a job that supports a family; where we control our own energy future and we lead the world in science and technology and innovation. America will only succeed if we all pitch in and pull together – and I’m counting on you to be leaders in that effort.
Because you are from Joplin. And you’ve already defied the odds.
In a city with countless stories of unthinkable courage and resilience over the last year, there are some that still stand out – especially on this day. By now, most of you know Joplin High senior Quinton Anderson, who’s probably embarrassed that someone’s talking about him again. But I’m going to talk about him anyways, because in a lot of ways, Quinton’s journey has been Joplin’s journey.
When the tornado struck, Quinton was thrown across the street from his house. The young man who found him couldn’t imagine that Quinton would survive such injuries. Quinton woke up in a hospital bed three days later. It was then that his sister Grace told him that both their parents had been lost to the storm.
Quinton went on to face over five weeks of treatment, including emergency surgery. But he left that hospital determined to carry on; to live his life, and to be there for his sister. Over the past year, he’s been a football captain who cheered from the sidelines when he wasn’t able to play. He worked that much harder so he could be ready for baseball in the spring. He won a national scholarship as a finalist for the High School Football Rudy Awards, and he plans to study molecular biology at Harding University this fall.
Quinton has said that his motto in life is “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.
Yes, you will encounter obstacles along the way. 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.
Langston Hughes, the poet and civil rights activist who knew some tough times, was born here in Joplin. In a poem called “Youth,” he wrote,
We have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame.
A night-gone thing,
A sun-down name.
And dawn-today. Broad arch above the road we came.
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. We march, together, and you are leading the way. Congratulations. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.
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