President Obama Speaks at the Joplin High School Commencement Ceremony

The President:
A few people I
want to acknowledge. First of all, you have an
outstanding governor in Jay Nixon, and we are proud of
all the work that he’s done. (applause) I want to acknowledge Senator
Claire McCaskill who is here. (applause) Representative Billy Long. (applause) Your mayor, Melodee
Colbert Kean. (applause) Somebody who doesn’t get a lot
of attention but does amazing work all across the country,
including here in Joplin, the head of FEMA, the
administrator, Craig Fugate, who spent an awful lot of
time here helping to rebuild. (applause) Superintendent Huff. (applause) Principal Sachetta. (applause) To the faculty, the parents,
the family, friends, the people of Joplin, and
most of all the class of 2012. (applause) Congratulations on
your graduation, and thank you for allowing me
the honor of playing a small part in this special day. Now, the job of a commencement
speaker primarily is to keep it short. Chloe, they’ve given me
more than two minutes. (laughter) But the other job 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 13 long. In just 32 minutes, it
took thousands of homes, and hundreds of businesses,
and 161 of your neighbors, friends and family. It took a classmate 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, I expect that 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, the first
phone call you had with somebody you loved, the first day that
you woke up in a world that would never be the same. And yet, the story of
Joplin isn’t just what happened that day. It’s the story of what
happened the next day. And the day after that. And all the days and weeks
and months 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.” Class of 2012, that
story is yours. It’s part of you now. As others have mentioned,
you’ve had to grow up quickly over the last year. You’ve learned at a younger age
than most of us that we can’t always predict what
life has in store. No matter how we
might try to avoid it, life surely can
bring some heartache, and life involves struggle. And at some point
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 lives
not by what happens to us, but by how we respond. We can choose to carry on. We can choose to 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 us, let it be the lesson that
sustains you through whatever challenges lie ahead. As you begin the next
stage in your journey, wherever you’re going,
whatever you’re doing, it’s safe to say you will
encounter greed and selfishness, and ignorance and cruelty,
sometimes just bad luck. You’ll meet people who try
to build themselves up by tearing others down. You’ll meet people who believe
that looking after others is only for suckers. But you’re 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 remember that in
a town of 50,000 people, nearly 50,000 more came in
to help the weeks after the tornado — perfect strangers
who’ve never met you and didn’t 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, he
said, “to pay it forward.” There were AmeriCorps volunteers
who have chosen to leave their homes and stay here in Joplin
till the work is done. And then there was the day that
Mizzou’s football team rolled into town with an 18-wheeler
full of donated supplies. And of all places, they
were assigned to help out on Kansas Avenue. (laughter and applause) I don’t know who set that up. (laughter) And while they hauled
away washing machines and refrigerators from the debris,
they met a woman named Carol Mann, who had just lost the
house she lived in for 18 years. And Carol didn’t have a lot. She works part-time
at McDonald’s. She struggles with seizures,
and she told the players that she had even lost the change
purse that held her lunch money. So one of them, one of the
players, went back to the house, dug through the rubble, and
returned with the purse with $5 inside. And Carol’s sister said, “So
much of the news that you hear is so negative. But these boys renewed my
faith that there are so many good people in the world.” That’s what you’ll remember. Because you’re from Joplin. You will remember the half
million dollar donation that came from Angelina Jolie and
some up-and-coming actor named Brad Pitt. (laughter) 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 maybe
you’ll also remember the brand new laptops that were sent from
the United Arab Emirates — a tiny 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
had lost her home and her bakery in the tornado, made
a hundred — or 1,500 cupcakes for the occasion. They were good cupcakes. (laughter) There are so many good
people in the world. There is such a decency,
a bigness of spirit, in this country of ours. And so, Class of 2012,
you’ve got to remember that. Remember what people did here. And like that man who came all
the way from Japan to Joplin, make sure in your own life
that you pay it forward. Now, just as you’ve learned
the goodness of people, you’ve also learned
the power of community. And you’ve heard from some
of the other speakers how powerful that is. And as you take on the roles of
co-worker and business owner — neighbor, citizen — you’ll
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. (laughter) You’ll meet people who prefer
to play up their differences instead of focusing on
what they have in common, where they can cooperate. But you’re from Joplin. So you will always 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 everybody to
pitch in so that school started on time, right here in Joplin. He understood the power
of this community, and he understood
the power of place. So these teachers
worked extra hours; coaches put in extra time. That mall was turned
into a classroom. The food court
became a cafeteria, which maybe some of you
thought was an improvement. (laughter) And, yes, the arrangements might
have been a little noisy and a little improvised,
but you hunkered down. You made it work together. You made it work together. That’s the power of community. 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 meeting,
the 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. And more than a thousand notes
covered an entire wall and became the blueprint that
architects are following to this day. I’m thinking about trying
this with Congress, give them some Post-It notes. (laughter and applause) 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 someplace else. And so 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
reopens its doors, people cheer the cutting of a
ribbon that bears the town’s new slogan: “Remember,
rejoice, and rebuild.” That’s community. I’ve been told, Class of 2012,
that before the tornado, many of you couldn’t wait to
leave here once high school was finally over. So Student Council President
Julia Lewis — where is Julia? She’s out here somewhere. (laughter) She is too embarrassed
to raise her hand. I’m quoting you, Julia. She said, “We never thought
Joplin was anything special” — now that’s typical
with teenagers. They don’t think their parents
are all that special either — (laughter) — “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.” So it’s no surprise, then, that
many of you have decided to stick around and go to Missouri
Southern or go to colleges or community colleges that aren’t
too far away from home. That’s the power of community. That’s the power of shared
effort and shared memory. Some of life’s strongest bonds
are the ones we forge when everything around
us seems broken. And even though I expect that
some of you will ultimately end up leaving Joplin, I’m pretty
confident that Joplin will never leave you. The people who went
through this with you, the people who you once thought
of as simply neighbors or acquaintances, classmates —
the people in this auditorium tonight — you’re family now. They’re your family. And so, my deepest hope for all
of you is that as you begin this new chapter in your life, you’ll
bring that spirit of Joplin to every place you travel,
to 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 God. We need each other. We are important to each other
and we’re stronger together than we are on our own. And that’s the spirit that has
allowed all of you to rebuild this city, and that’s the same
spirit we need right now to help rebuild America. And you, Class of 2012, you’re
going to help lead this effort. You’re the ones who will help
build an economy where every child can count on
a good education. (applause) You’re the one that’s going to
make sure this country is a place where everybody who is
willing to put in the effort can find a job that
supports a family. (applause) You’re the ones that will make
sure we’re a country that controls our own energy future,
where we lead the world in science and technology
and innovation. America only succeeds when we
all pitch in and pull together, and I’m counting on you to
be leaders in that effort, because you’re from Joplin and
you’ve already defied the odds. Now, there are a lot of stories
here in Joplin of unthinkable courage and resilience
over the last year, but still there are
some that stand out, especially on this day. And, by now, most of you know
Joplin High’s senior Quinton Anderson — look, he is
already looking embarrassed. Somebody is talking
about him again. But, Quinton, I’m going
to talk about you anyway, 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 Quinton
couldn’t imagine that Quinton would survive his injuries. Quinton woke up in a hospital
bed three days later. And it was then that his sister
Grace told him that both their parents had been
lost in the storm. So 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, to be
there for his sister. And over the past year, he’s
been a football captain who cheered from the sidelines
when he couldn’t 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. He plans to study molecular
biology at Harding University this fall. (applause) Quinton has said that his motto
in life is “always take that extra step.” And today, after a long and
improbable journey for Quinton — and for Joplin and for the
entire class of 2012 — that extra step is about to take you
towards whatever future you hope for and whatever dreams
you hold in your hearts. Yes, you will encounter
obstacles along the way. I guarantee you will face
setbacks and you will face disappointments. But you’re from Joplin
and you’re from America. And no matter how tough times
get, you’ll always be tougher. And no matter what life throws
at you, you will be ready. You will not be defined by
the difficulties you face, but by how you respond —
with grace and strength and a commitment to others. Langston Hughes, poet, civil
rights activist who knew some tough times, he was
born here in Joplin. In a poem called “Youth,” he
wrote: We have tomorrow Bright before us Like a flame. Yesterday A night-gone
thing, A sun-down name. And dawn-today. Broad arc above
the road we came. We march. To the people of Joplin
and the Class of 2012, the road has been hard
and the day has been long. But we have tomorrow,
so we march. We march together, and
you’re leading the way, because you’re from Joplin. Congratulations. May God bless you. May God bless the Class of 2012. (applause) May God bless the United
States of America.

Michael Martin

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