JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — It was a label they sought both to embrace and avoid, a refrain overheard in whispers or uttered bluntly at soccer games, summer camps and national academic competitions: Here come the tornado kids from Joplin.
For the 428 members of Joplin High School's Class of 2012, Monday night's graduation — featuring a commencement speech by President Barack Obama — caps a senior year marked by tragedy, turmoil and perseverance.
The president will visit southwest Missouri the day before the anniversary of the country's deadliest single tornado in six decades. The May 22, 2011, twister killed 161 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed thousands of buildings, including Joplin High. Five other Joplin schools were also destroyed, with four more among the damaged structures.
The twister arrived hours after last year's high school graduation, forever defining the Joplin High Class of 2011 and their younger classmates as well.
"They had to grow up the night of the storm," Joplin High principal Kerry Sachetta said. "They saw things they never should have had to see."
School officials vowed to return to class on time. They turned a vacant big-box retail store at the city's only mall into a temporary Joplin High for juniors and seniors, with freshmen and 10th-graders at another location across town. A middle school relocated to an industrial park warehouse.
Despite the less than ideal location, Joplin students embraced their return to a school they saw as a refuge, a safe haven in a town otherwise gone awry, said Joplin High English teacher Brenda White.
"Those kids who lost something needed normalcy," she said. "And there was no real place to go. But school is a normal place."
The Joplin tornado helped tighten bonds, diminish cliques, elevate school spirit and strengthen community ties, students and teachers said. Fights and other disciplinary violations declined dramatically.
"Once we had been through (everything) this last year, people just weren't interested in a lot of the general high school nonsense," said graduating senior Derek Carter, who will attend the University of Alabama in the fall. "Everyone realized that the carefree nature of high school that we always had, it just doesn't fit as well anymore."
Carter and his classmates have been feted by celebrities, from American Idol winner David Cook's performance at the homecoming dance to pop star Katy Perry's welcome message for prom.
With few textbooks to salvage from the rubble, the school overhauled its approach to teaching and embraced a technology-first approach, thanks to an estimated $1 million donation from the United Arab Emirates that helped equip each Joplin high school student with a laptop computer.
The transition wasn't entirely smooth, White said.
"I have never worked so hard in my life at any job as I have this year," she said. "Everything was brand new. There were no books. You had to get your own lessons. You had to get the kids up to speed. You had to get up to speed. You had to learn (computer) programs and how to structure the information."
And for even the school's top achievers, the steady attention from outside eventually grew tiresome, said Carter, an honor student who will share the stage with Obama on Monday night.
"We are kind of known across the nation for the tornado. I'd almost rather not be known than to be known for something so tragic," he said.
Graduating senior Siri Ancha described a similar experience at an academic camp she attended in Texas just two weeks after the tornado, and when she, Carter and other members of the school's U.S. Constitution team attended a national competition in Washington last month.
"That's just how we're characterized now, as 'the tornado kids,'" she said. "They weren't really interested in who you are, what are your hobbies."
On Tuesday, the Joplin school system will symbolically break ground at three new schools being built to replace those lost last year, including a new high school expected to open in 2014. Construction will be financed in part by a $62 million bond issued approved by Joplin voters in April.
Ancha, who plans to study medicine in a combined six-year degree program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, now accepts being known as a tornado kid. She used to think she would leave Joplin behind once college beckoned, but now realizes that she's inextricably linked to her hometown.
"For the longest time, I thought I had to go to college some place far away, I had to leave this place," she said. "But I'm glad I'm only going to be three hours away now. Because being a part of this town has meant so much to me, especially this year. Not just because of the tornado. Joplin is a great community. I definitely have the Joplin pride now."