One year ago today, the world changed forever for the people of Joplin when the most powerful tornado in over six decades cut a swath of devastation a mile wide and thirteen miles long. The storm destroyed the hospital, killed 161 people, injured hundreds more and left thousands homeless.
The storm hit just after the high school graduation ceremony, claiming one of the class of 2011 and destroying the high school structure. The community was devastated, and the school that was its living, beating heart was gone, reduced to a pile of rubble in the blink of an eye.
But schools are more than buildings. Schools are the people who work there and who study there. Schools are communities. Schools are greater than the sum of their parts, functioning in the aggregate rather than in isolation.
The buildings are important, they hold our memories and they are the place where the dreams we dared to dream as teenagers never die. And when the buildings are damaged or destroyed the community feels it acutely, and more intensely than other important structures. Schools – especially high schools – cross all lines. Everyone, for the most part, attends, regardless of color, creed or socioeconomic class. Field trips, math teachers, heartbreak-losses and come-from-behind wins by the sports team – they all serve as a basis of common reference for everyone in the community, and they last a lifetime.
When the tornado destroyed the school, the Superintendent made it clear that although the building was gone, the school was not. Instead of scattering kids to neighboring districts while a new high school was constructed, they improvised.
It was important to the students, as well as the community, to keep the school district intact. The high school relocated to the mall and East Middle School took up residence in a converted warehouse. But the location was secondary, what really mattered was that they were able to stick together.
And last night, the class that went to school their senior year in the mall graduated. And unlike the rest of us, they will remember forever who delivered their commencement address…all 431 of them shook the hand of the President of the United States as they filed into the auditorium and paid attention as he delivered a moving and relevant commencement address.
Schools are more than just the buildings. Schools are central to the communities they serve, and the Joplin High School class of 2012 is the living, breathing proof of it, and a symbol of hope, strength and courage to the rest of us.