05/22/2012 10:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Joplin Tornado Teaches True Meaning of School

President Barack Obama spoke at the Joplin High School Graduation Monday night.

Today, the one-year anniversary of the tornado that destroyed one-third of this community and killed 161 will be observed with a unity walk that will cover the path of the tornado and end at Cunningham Park with a moment of silence at 5:41 p.m., the exact moment the tornado occurred.

Joplin was the center of attention Monday, but on Friday May 18, just three days before Air Force One arrived, the most important moment for 160 eighth graders at East Middle School, where I teach, had nothing to do with the anniversary or the president.

It was their last day of middle school and they were spending it in a converted warehouse, directly across from a dog food factory that continually offered an aromatic gift to the surrounding atmosphere.

The East Middle School building the children had attended for two years, what had been a brand new building, was just a memory. The auditorium, the gymnasium, and commons area were completely destroyed by the EF-5 tornado; the rest of it was razed recently.

During the 2011-2012 school year, East students took physical education classes in a modular building and put on drama and musical productions in the auditoriums of the district's other middle schools, miles away.

Instead of the state-of-the-art auditorium that had been the pride and joy of the old East, students sat on the floor during assemblies and most of our last half day was dedicated to an East tradition -- the annual talent show and awards assembly.

My Journalism Club students were set up at a table in the back of the cafeteria about 20 minutes before the program began. In front of them was an array of laptops that they would use to live blog the show, something we had never done before.

Darin was set up with the camcorder, while Jennifer, one of our two editors, Karly, Megan and Austen were on our blog website doing previews. Amy, the other co-editor, was on our Facebook page providing anyone who might have been online an opportunity to know what was going on this final day of the school year. Two sixth graders, Emma and Katy, were ready to take pictures.

At 9:30 a.m. the students began moving into the commons area, taking their seats on the floor.

For two and a half hours, I watched in awe as my students worked continually on a last day when their friends were relaxing. All of them had to leave their posts several times, either to accept awards for their academic accomplishments, or to perform.

It was a program filled with young girls singing Taylor Swift songs, or at least I think they were Taylor Swift songs, and students receiving awards for making the honor roll every quarter or for having perfect attendance.

The end of the program brought the teacher dance with faculty members showing their willingness to make fools of themselves (though a few of them are excellent dancers).

The final act was the concert choir's rendition of one of those goodbye songs that make the rounds this time of the year.

As I watched my journalism students, I saw the tears flowing. They knew this was their last day of middle school, but the song brought the point home.

And just like the high school graduation that will come Monday, the room was filled with young people who are ending one stage of their lives and preparing for the next.

A speculator on hug futures would have made a killing. I watched as three of my students shared a group hug, with Jennifer and Alyssa consoling Megan.


Hours after the final day of the 2011-2012 school year drew to a close, I received an e-mail message from Jennifer telling me she had posted a final story on our website. Since Jennifer is one of the best writers I have ever had the privilege of teaching, I quickly called up the East Middle School Roundabout and read her story. It included the following passage:

I remember thinking for countless hours how I couldn't wait for summer. I couldn't wait to be out of school, to just be lazy! Many eighth graders were especially looking forward to the joys of high school! The time for relaxation and vacation was definitely anticipated... and soon enough, the time came.

This school year went by like a breeze, and before we knew it, the end of school was soon approaching. This meant the end of middle school for the eighth graders, and the beginning of high school as freshmen. You would think we would be happy for summer, for a break.

Yes, we were happy, but we were also sad. The school year just went by too fast!

Too fast? We were in a warehouse, feeling forgotten in the nether regions of the school district. When the dignitaries came, they went to the mall high school, not to see this group of students who had been just as misplaced, just as much lost in the wake of the most horrifying incident of their young lives.

Too fast? Jennifer was right. The end of our educational adventure had come much too quickly.

Jennifer touched another emotional chord with her final words:

Tears spring to my eyes as I close with my final bid of farewell to East. Through all the good times and the bad, we have overcome and made this school truly unforgettable. This is why I will always remember you.

Goodbye East. I love you.

In her words, Jennifer hit on the reason why the Joplin Tornado could never bring East Middle School down. It was just a building that was destroyed, one that had packed many memories into its two years, but just a building.

Those unforgettable kids, the Jennifers, the Amys, the Megans, the Austens, the Darins, and all of the rest of them, the ones who sat in our makeshift classrooms and walked our warehouse halls this year and those who will be there next year as we wait for our new building to be built- they're the ones who make the school.

The circumstances that brought us together in this industrial park we call home were horrific, but what a wonderful school year.