JOPLIN — The young woman with the red ballet slippers tattoo and the sad eyes clutched her maroon gown and waited outside for a friend before the Joplin High School graduation ceremony Monday evening.
The tattoo, located on the back of Joplin senior Holly O’Dell’s right shoulder, is striking, but simple.
Red ballet slippers. Her grandmother’s name — Vicki Robertson — and birthdate. A date of death: May 22, 2011.
It’s the date an EF-5 tornado carved a 13-mile path of destruction in Joplin, a city of about 50,000 in southwest Missouri, and took 161 lives, including Robertson’s.
It’s the day that not one of the seniors that skip ahead of their parents in maroon robes or the friends and family that wait in a line that wraps around the corner can forget.
After the storm last year, O’Dell said she and her family found old pictures of her grandmother in ballet slippers in her grandmother’s house. She hadn’t known her grandmother was a dancer. She got the tattoo on her 18th birthday in August.
“I was thinking of a way to keep her in my memory,” O’Dell said. “It helps me share her story, because people always ask me about it."
Like most high school graduates, like last year’s Joplin senior class that graduated less than an hour before the tornado hit their community, the 2012 graduates are excited for summer. They are excited for college.
But they bear the scars of last May’s tragedy. They are missing homes. They are missing friends. They are missing family members.
They are the first senior class that the Joplin community rallied behind as the community faced a world that was no longer familiar.
And when O’Dell and the rest of her graduating class finished walking to “Pomp and Circumstance” in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at Missouri Southern State University, that community stood and roared.
Although messages of hope and excitement for the future were not absent from the ceremony, there were constant reminders of the struggles the Joplin community has experienced in the year after the tornado.
President Barack Obama and Governor Jay Nixon joined faculty members on stage and gave riveting speeches about Joplin's resilience in the days and months after the tragedy and the nation's eagerness to help. The crowd grew silent for two Joplin High School students lost in last year’s disaster — Will Norton, class of 2011; and Lantz Hare, class of 2013. Superintendent C.J. Huff’s voice broke as he spoke about the “Joplin family” that has formed since last May.
But the ceremony didn’t lack humor.
Ten of 20 school district buildings were destroyed or damaged in the Joplin tornado, including Joplin High School. This year, Joplin seniors attended classes at a local mall.
“I’m proud to be a member of the Northpark Mall graduates of 2012,” quipped senior class President Chloe Hadley in a speech addressed to her classmates.
Many at the ceremony found their goals for the future changed after the tornado.
"When I saw how bad the damage was I realized as a civilian I could only help so much," graduating senior Jarred English, 19, said before the ceremony. "Then, when I saw the National Guard's work, it motivated me to enlist."
Others were simply thankful for survival.
Leslie Fuller, 50, is grateful that her son Jared is alive and able to graduate on Monday. During the tornado, he became trapped between the side of a house and an air conditioning unit, and she said he struggled to deal with the experience during his senior year.
Fuller said that, for many, there are parts of this year that people do not want to remember. Many of the ceremony's speakers spoke about moving beyond the past in order to rebuild.
“This is a community that never gave up and never gave in," Gov. Nixon said to crowd cheers. "This is a community that with hope in its heart and steel in its spine has come back stronger and better than ever.”
Progress has been made. Most of the businesses on Range Line, a road that runs through the heart of Joplin, have been restored. The groundbreaking ceremony for the new Joplin High School and the Franklin Technology Center, the high school’s vo-tech training center, is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, though the facilities will not be finished until 2014.
But while some things move forward, others still aren’t the same for the people of Joplin.
39-year-old Charlie Madison’s autistic stepson hides every time there is a storm and packs a backpack to leave.
Tom and Fern Cowen, 70 and 68, still get confused when they drive on certain streets because piles of debris and empty spaces throw off their sense of direction.
And the Joplin High School graduates have the Secret Service and TV crews and the President of the United States to remind them that once again the nation has turned its eyes toward their community.
The community that came together. The community that continues to rebuild. The community that begs not to be defined by tragedy as they tend to wounds they’ll never forget.
Missourian reporter Skyler Still contributed to this report.