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.
Broad arch above the road we came.
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.