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Obama addresses Joplin High School grads on eve of tornado's anniversary

President Barack Obama told the graduating seniors of Joplin High School Monday night that they and their city had inspired the world.

Speaking on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the mile-wide tornado that shredded their city, Obama said Joplin’s lesson is that lives are defined not by what happens to people, but by how they respond.

“The story of Joplin is the story of what happened the next day,” the president said. “And the day after that. And all the days and weeks that followed.”

Even in the face of devastation, people can choose to carry on and make a difference, Obama said.

“And in doing so, we can make true what’s written in Scripture — that ‘tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.’ ”

The president’s visit was his second to Joplin in a year. Obama walked the city’s streets one week after the EF-5 tornado struck, promising then that the country would stand at Joplin’s side for years to come.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said then.

A year later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still on the ground, and Gov. Jay Nixon continues to visit regularly. A week ago, the governor came to announce $2.8 million to build severe weather “safe rooms” at five Joplin schools.

Monday night, Obama and Nixon received standing ovations when introduced to a capacity crowd of 4,500 at Missouri Southern State University. The graduating class was in a raucous mood, chanting a Joplin High School Eagles rallying cry while Obama and Nixon smiled.

Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff said Joplin High School had become America’s high school with a sterling motto: “No excuses.”

He told the president and governor that the class “has quite simply been amazing,” with the largest number of honors students in school history.

His voice breaking, Huff told the graduates that no matter where they wind up, “your Joplin family loves you and believes in you.”

Nixon called the spirit of Joplin “unbreakable” and said the community had become a symbol of what’s best in America. “You have been tried and tested,” he said, “and are better for it.”

The president said the city’s recovery is now part of each graduating student.

“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.”

Joplin’s graduates also learned that the world is full of good people, Obama said. He recalled the $500,000 donation from actors Angelina Jolie and Missouri native Brad Pitt, the donated prom dresses and the man who came from Japan to pitch in and help.

“There is such a decency, a bigness of spirit, in this country of ours,” Obama said. “Remember that. And like the man from Japan who came to Joplin, make sure to pay it forward in your own life.”

Looking back, students and administrators recall the 2011-12 school year as strange, uplifting and freakishly fast-paced.

It was strange because of how different it all was. High school, or “Shopko High,” as many students called it, was stuffed in a long-abandoned Shopko store in the Northpark Mall. The school had movable walls, but no lockers or gymnasium.

On the first day of school in August, reporters such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper jammed the place. Volunteers, reporters and visitors regularly flooded the district. So did care packages, many from students at schools across the country and some from kids as young as ages 5 or 6. A Persian Gulf country sent laptops for all the high school students.

It all made the return to classes even more surreal.

Yet unlike most years, students welcomed that first day back. It restored a sense of something normal after a summer that had been anything but.

“Until then,” said graduating senior Siri Ancha, “there were a lot of doubts and confusion about what would happen.”

School started on time in August, just 87 days after the tornado hit. It finished on time, too. Some 3,200 students were taught in temporary facilities, and all programs were maintained. Of the 431 graduating, 66 will do so with honors. That’s the most ever for the school.

The district is building four new schools, including a new high school slated to open in 2014, with the help of a $62 million bond issue that 58 percent of voters approved in April.

Students quickly realized that many of the traditions that mark senior year were lost to them, such as the “senior bench,” a hallway seating area reserved for upperclassmen that had been a staple of Joplin High School life for years.

Danielle Campbell, whose house was destroyed by the tornado, quickly realized that didn’t matter. Neither did the absence of lockers, or the familiar cafeteria or the friendly confines of old Joplin High School. The people and her classmates who went through the topsy-turvy year together were what mattered.

“Honestly, it made us closer,” Campbell said. “It made the whole town closer. We all supported each other. We valued each other a lot more.”

Kids who didn’t have much to do with each other suddenly were kids who at least talked with each other. Some of the old stereotypes faded. Everyone had something in common because everyone had survived a killer storm. The class of 2012 grew up — quickly.

The start of the school year was made even more complicated by the Apple laptops each student was given, courtesy of a donation from the United Arab Emirates. Textbooks, for the most part, were unusable after the storm, so students and teachers went online for almost everything.

Nifty as that seemed, some students struggled early on with lost assignments, and they missed their textbooks. They helped each other navigate the new challenges of computer learning.

“These kids really took each other under each other’s wings,” Huff said. “They’ve matured beyond their years.”

Fights between students, a fact of life at high schools nationwide, were down in Joplin. While there were worries about suicides that are common after a tragedy, there were none at Joplin High this year. School staff was trained to watch for signs of post traumatic stress disorder. When students were seen to be struggling with stress, they were sent to counselors.

“The downside of that is what you can’t see,” Huff said. “That is the struggle to deal with all the mental health needs of the kids and staff.”

All the turmoil made for a streak of a year for the seniors who walked across the stage Monday night.

“It was just a blur,” said graduating senior Sam Williams.

A blur, but not so fast that he won’t have a lasting appreciation of what he and his classmates experienced together.

“I’m so proud of the way we’ve handled this,” Williams said. “We had to set a tone for the rest of the kids who have to go through school at the mall. We’ve been resilient. We didn’t complain too much about it.

“We played the cards we were dealt.”