One of the lasting symbols of the May 22, 2011, Joplin Tornado was a makeshift sign that stood in front of the destroyed Joplin High School.
Where those who had passed the forlorn sight earlier had seen all but two letters blown off the sign, someone saw those two letters, an O and a P, added two homemade letters and turned a symbol of tragedy into one of hope.
That hope was realized tonight when voters in the Joplin School District, still reeling from the effects of the most deadly tornado to hit this nation in six decades, looked past their own difficulties and made the biggest step to not only recovery, but to moving the city of Joplin forward into the future.
Thanks to Joplin School District voters, the sign that had offered a hope for the future is now a guarantee. Sometime in the next three years, the city of Joplin will have a new high school, one that not only replaces the memory-filled building at 20th and Indiana, but one that will move the school firmly into the 21st Century.
The bond issue, which needed 57.4 percent to pass, only made it by a 45-vote margin, but in this case 45 votes were as good as 4,000.
It was a hard-fought battle for those in the Joplin community who saw the rebirth of a school system that had 10 buildings either completely destroyed or almost destroyed by the tornado.
Joplin High School students in grades 11 and 12 have been going to school in a converted anchor store at Northpark Mall, while those in grades 9 and 10 are attending classes in a converted middle school that was a high school three decades ago.
The children attending East Middle School, where I teach, are in what had been a spec building in an industrial park on the far outskirts of the district. Each day, they are greeted by the uninviting aroma of the nearby dog food plant. Students in some of our elementary schools are also in different locations, while even our administrative staff is a building that was formerly used by the Missouri Highway Department.
It is not easy to convince people to invest their faith in a type of school building that the Joplin area has never seen before, but the people of this school district learned something about our Superintendent C. J. Huff and the members of the board of education. When they make a promise, they deliver.
The first proof of that came shortly after the tornado. Huff, his staff, and district teachers began a quest to make sure that every student, every staff member was safe after the tornado. Though we lost students, including two from the high school and one from East Middle School, and a teacher at Franklin Technical School, which was also lost in the tornado, every person was accounted for before the next step began.
It was that next step that drew some disbelief from the people of Joplin, in fact the people of this nation. Huff promised, repeatedly, that school would start on time in the Joplin School District, only 87 days after 10 schools and about half of the buildings in the district had been hit.
While Huff was not the only community leader to provide inspiration in a time of desperate need, his unwavering commitment to helping a community heal by bringing its children back into the classroom served as a call to arms for Joplin.
Less than three months after the storm took more than 160 lives, faculty and staff returned to Missouri Southern State University for an opening day ceremony that was unlike any other ever held in this school district.
When we arrived on campus, we were greeted by hundreds of people from the community -- the first time we had ever seen anyone but fellow school employees at this annual function.
Jay Nixon, the governor of the state, was also there to greet us.
Two days later, the children once again were in our classrooms. Some were at the mall, some were at a converted middle school, some were in a warehouse. But not one student in the Joplin School District had education delayed. The bells rang on time.
It was a bit hectic for us. All of the converted school buildings had one dignitary after another visiting. When a sixth grader at our school wanted to know directions to the front office, our science teacher, Mike Wallace answered, "Go down the hall and turn right at the governor."
After scaling one seemingly insurmountable height, Huff and the Board of Education set another, seemingly more impossible goal -- passing a $62 million bond issue that would not only rebuild our schools, but make them far superior than before and also provide tornado safe rooms in each facility, not just for the staff and students, but for the community.
This second daunting task was termed "Operation Rising Eagle."
The obstacles were many. District officials and other bond issue supporters had to convince enough naysayers that it was vital to build schools of 2012 and beyond, and not just rebuild schools constructed decades ago.
They had to convince people who are already facing a heavy financial burden to make an investment in the future of the community.
Tonight, Operation Rising Eagle concluded with a victory, not a victory for C. J. Huff or the members of the Joplin Board of Education, or even the community steering committee that worked unceasingly to promote the issue, but a victory for the students of the Joplin School District, and students who have yet to be born.
When the tornado took this city's beloved high school May 22, all we had left was hope, as so memorably created on that broken sign.
Now that hope will become a reality.
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