I'm probably going to sound like a jerk for a minute, but bear with me and I'll stop sounding like a jerk by the end.
I was born and raised in a small town in southwest Missouri. I attended school in an even smaller town about 12 miles from my house.
Because we lived in one city but attended school in another I never really identified with either. Seneca, where I attended school, was a town of less than 2,000 people. It consisted of one main street with a flashing red light, two groceries stores that were inexplicably placed almost right next to each other, a beauty shop or two, a bank, and a few restaurants that came and went.
The people who live(d) in Seneca are/were close-knit and relatively simple. I'm pretty sure people didn't lock their doors or worry about anything more criminal than the occasional speeding ticket on the road to the baseball fields.
While my mom taught in the school district, I never really felt like we fit in there. We actually lived 5 miles outside of the sprawling metropolis of Joplin. Our address was Joplin and we did most of our shopping there. But, because we didn't attend the schools in Joplin, I didn't feel like I fit in there either.
For years this didn't matter. I thought to myself, who wants to be from Joplin, Missouri? It's nothing more than a dot on the map, a stop on the interstate, a blackhole that sucks in its residents tricking them into staying and never reaching their potential or pursuing their dreams. (see I told you I'd sound like a jerk, stick around)
When I was picking out colleges I wanted to get out of Joplin and never look back. In fact, my parents wouldn't even let me consider Missouri Southern State College, the Joplin school.
I scoffed at all things Joplin as being uncultured, quaint, and too boring for my tastes. So I headed off to Springfield, met great people, got a degree, headed off to Columbia, got a doctorate, and settled down to start my family.
Over the decade that all of this took place I visited Joplin frequently and even Seneca from time to time. I kept in touch with many friends and eventually reconnected with others. All the while, when people would ask where I was from I would reluctantly offer up Joplin with the explanation that my school years were spent in Seneca.
May 22, 2011, I was enjoying a quiet evening with my husband and daughter. We had dinner, washed the kid and put her to bed around 6 something. As I always do, I grabbed my phone to check out Facebook after Claire was in bed. I started reading these posts from friends talking about some tornado that had hit Joplin. I immediately turned on the Weather Channel and called my parents to make sure they were safe.
My dad answered, yes he knew there was a tornado, no they weren't hurt. My mom was actually napping through all of it. Relieved that my family was safe I turned my attention to the broadcast.
The next few hours were like a movie. It couldn't be real life. The reporter was standing in the parking lot of the pharmacy I worked at during high school. Except there was no pharmacy. There wasn't anything, anywhere. My mind couldn't wrap itself around what I was see. It was so incredibly disturbing. The destruction was incomprehensible.
I wanted to do something, anything to help. I wanted to drive down and start dragging debris around. I was 7 months pregnant, so it wasn't really an option. So I sat, feeling helpless and so very sad for my hometown. That's right, my hometown. In an instant I felt protective of all things Joplin; the people, the places, the culture.
In the days that followed the people of Joplin showed the world, and this former resident, what they were made of. They showed what real human compassion looks like and they did it with such grace. They didn't let the storm victimize them. They stood facing down the challenge of rebuilding a city and said, when can we start?
In the times that I have traveled back to Joplin to visit my parents and friends I have many times driven down Main Street and been shocked by what I see. Before 5/22, between 26th and 20th streets you couldn't see very far to your east and west because of the buildings and beautiful mature trees. If you traveled to your east you would find neighborhoods made up of lovely ranch style-houses. If you traveled to your west you would find older homes that might resemble more of a Cape Cod style. Those are all gone now.
In their place new homes are springing up as fast as builders can build them. Families are once again celebrating milestones like graduations and birthdays.
If Joplin was a chalkboard, it was wiped clean when the tornado came through. But it couldn't erase the spirit of the people in its path.
I am proud to say I am from Joplin, Missouri. Not because I want you to ask me about the tornado, but because I want to tell you about the amazing community that I was lucky enough to be a part of for my first 18 years. The place that my family has called home for generations.
I think the tornado restored a sense of community that may have been waning in this world of email and social networking where you never actually have to talk to another live person.
Joplin is more than a dot on a map. Its residents are more than a number on a population sign. They are strong, resilient, beautiful people.
I would also like to say that out of the tornado several of my classmates have shown like the stars that they are. The Rhatigan Brothers wrote an amazing song and you can listen to it here. Erica Tremblay has made an amazing documentary and you can view the trailer here. Danny Craven and his Joplin High School students made this video. These people make me proud to say that I grew up in a little town in southwest Missouri. When I listen and watch these things, I can't help but cry. I am ashamed that it took such loss and suffering for me to feel pride in where I came from. I am proud, though.