Obama: “You Are From Joplin And You Are From America.”

After listening to our president deliver a number of speeches, I don’t know why I am still surprised, but President Obama’s address at the Joplin High School graduation ceremony on Monday night astonished me, not just for its comely detail, but for the empathy with which it was delivered.

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought Mr. Obama had been living in Joplin this past year.

About the damage done by last May’s tornado, I recently lamented:

I will never again walk the track just east of St. John’s listening to the dogs bark in the neighborhood where Sarah and Bill Anderson were killed, he being a fellow coach in the Joplin South Little League years ago.

Bill Anderson’s motivation for coaching was his son, Quinton, who was a part of this year’s Joplin High School varsity baseball team. And, fittingly, President Obama ended his speech with this:

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.

We march!!

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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  1. Indeed, President Obama’s speech at the Joplin High School graduation appears to be the denouement of a year of change and national attention. His is a class act. I can’t imagine any one else working harder at the job or displaying better style at it. (Well, Bill Clinton might have equaled it. Sometimes.) Of course, those already inclined against The Other will see it differently through confirmation bias.

    The whole thing, the Joplin Recovery, is over the top to me. Underlying it all is an unspoken but very real elan of commercial zeal, born of fresh recovery money. It is also a study in group psychology I think. The paper this morning quotes school superintendent C. J. Huff as remarking on the 2012 graduating class as setting a clear high-water mark for Honors achievements. I believe they, like the rest of Joplin, have been influenced by the Hawthorne Effect. We eusocial creatures are greatly affected by attention – it is the stuff of life. But there is danger in this. When outward praise is not matched by inner strength and the obstacles of life become evident, it likely means trouble. It will be interesting to observe whether the Joplin tornado Hawthorne Effect is lasting, don’t you think?


    • Jim,

      When I heard Huff’s remarks about student achievement, I didn’t think of the Hawthorne effect (I’m not that smart), but I did hope that the results were genuine, as there might be a temptation to fudge at times like this.

      In any case, I was amazed at Obama partly because of what must have been a grueling weekend, what with the G8 and NATO meetings and the controversy over Mayor Booker’s dumb comments on Sunday morning. He came in here, delivered a great speech, and never showed any signs of weariness or fatigue. Maybe getting away from politics energized him.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  May 22, 2012

    Instead of a blog, I have a column coming tomorrow in the Globe summarizing my views of the ceremony and events surrounding it.

    For sure Obama did a good job in his speech and thoughts and he is to be commended for doing so for our small city.

    My focus, privately, was celebrating the graduation of my grand daughter and her friends that I know, as well as the entire class.

    But the defining message, to me came via the President but originally from Mike Rohr in saying (I paraphrase) that we should not be defined by adverstiy. Rather our response to adversity should define us. The President embellished on that from his scriptural references as well, tribulationark perseverance to character to hope.

    That is reflected in our recovery thus far and for sure by the Class of 2012.

    As well the financila numbers relflect the same, in my view based on the AP story in the Globe. About 80% from private insurance, maybe 5%-10% from charities, about 15% (or less) from government sources and an uncountable contribution for volunteers of all sorts.

    That kind of financial partnership in a community from various sources makes a lot of sense to me. Just imagine had the volunteers not shown up how much it would cost government otherwise, just as an example.



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