Graduation is supposed to in part be about celebrating the future, but last year in Joplin, Mo., shortly after the high school graduation ceremony, an EF-5 tornado — the highest-strength rating — destroyed one-third of the city and killed 161 people, including one teen who had received his diploma that day.
In addition to the homes, hospital and businesses that were destroyed, the high school itself was in ruins, along with several other school buildings. Even though cash and equipment donations have poured in, students and teachers have contended with displacement, lingering pain and having to adapt to some unusual workarounds.
At the Northpark Mall in Joplin, one entrance stands out from the familiar Sears and Macy’s storefronts. Instead of the name of a big department store above the doors, there are the words “Joplin High School.” The facility, a former retail space the district renovated in a matter of weeks after the tornado, has come to be known as “the mall school.”
Students and teachers there have learned what it means to adapt to change and be flexible.
“It was overwhelming in the beginning. The walls don’t touch the ceiling, so you hear everything,” says Katie Simpson, a senior at the so-called mall school, which is home to juniors and seniors here. The mall school has a modern design that students love, but there are problems.
“It’s loud, it’s noisy, and you can barely concentrate. But you get used to it after a while,” she says.
Students aren’t the only ones adjusting to a noisy environment. Virginia Gormely teaches her English class with soft music in the background as a choral group practices nearby, and she competes for her students’ attention with a very loud teacher next door.
“We joke that we have dual-credit classes,” Gormely says. “He teaches personal finance and there are many times when my kids actually answer the questions that he’s asking his class. If they stumble, they’ll answer.”
Administrators have tried to give students a sense of normalcy. In spite of the troubles, Joplin High School Principal Kerry Sachetta says he hopes it’s been a good year for students.
“We wanted one part of their day to be something that they could remember, especially our seniors,” Sachetta says. “We wanted them to be able to say, ‘You know what, I was in this club, I was in this organization, I was on this team, I was in this concert.’ Not be able to look back and say, ‘This tornado not only destroyed our town but it also wiped out everything I can remember about what was important to me growing up.’ “
One of the buildings that did get wiped out was Irving Elementary. The students and teachers have been in another district facility this year with some classes being held nearby in trailers. Third-grade teacher Shelly Tarter says it’s been a tough year, but she and the students have comforted each other.
“You know, they’re always patting me on the back or giving me hugs and just saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I think they need to see how I’m responding to things and letting my emotions show,” Tarter says. “I think that’s a wonderful lesson for them.”
The year has also provided some lessons not found in textbooks. Gormely says students have learned how to accept what has happened and move on.
“And I told them acceptance is a huge part of life,” she says. “You’re going to plan to be a doctor, and you may not be. It’s all about acceptance and that’s how you move on. And that’s how every day is OK. Because you go, ‘This didn’t work out; this does.’ “
Despite the sometimes emotional moments this year, the school district is looking to the future. In April, voters approved a $62 million bond issue to fund construction of four new schools and storm shelters. Later this month, this year’s graduating class will reflect on the difficult year while listening to an unusually high-profile commencement speaker: President Obama.