No Chair at Graduation for Joplin Tornado Victim

In Joplin, Missouri, a community where everything has been lost in the prism of May 22, 2011, sometimes it is easy to overlook basic truths.

It is also easy to overlook basic humanity.

Such has been the case with the continuing controversy surrounding the request by Zach Williams' mother to have a chair draped with a cap and gown when Joplin High School graduation ceremonies are held May 22, 2016, the five-year anniversary of the tornado that took her son's life.

The decision was made to list Zach, along with other students and staff members who lost their lives in the tornado, during a part of the ceremony, which will include a moment of silence.

While this is an appropriate remembrance, it misses the point.

Zach Williams was not just someone who lost his life in the tornado. On May 22, 2011, he was a seventh grader at Joplin East Middle School, where I taught. Zach would have been a member of the Joplin High School Class of 2016.

Actually, except for the fact that it ended Zach's life, this really has nothing to do with the tornado.

It has everything to do with basic humanity and with community.

Since his mother, Tammy Niederhelmen, began her quest to have her son's memory honored, people have written some horrible things about her family. Tammy has been accused of being selfish and putting her needs above the wishes of the members of the JHS Class of 2016.

Some particularly cruel social media comments have pointed out that Zach may not have graduated this year, with one even noting that he may not have made it to graduation because of the growing suicide rate among teens.

While some seniors who knew Zach have supported the efforts to have a chair for their former classmate, others have complained that it would be too "somber" and this graduation event is about the ones who will receive their diplomas.

In other words, it's sad that Zach couldn't make it, but we did, and it is all about us.

In his December 4 message to parents, Joplin High School Principal Kerry Sachetta reviewed the thought process that went into his decision to reject Zach's mother's request:

Our current and longstanding practice is to recognize students who pass away at any point while attending Joplin High School by announcing their names and holding a moment of silence to honor them during the graduation ceremony. We have recognized ten high school students in this manner over the last several years. This recent request and the conversations occurring on social media and in our community have challenged us to review this practice. Is this the best way to honor students? Should we expand this to include students who never attended our high school but attended Joplin Schools? How would we ensure students weren't forgotten? Is this appropriate during what is typically a celebratory event? What do other schools in our area do? And, what we believe is the most important question, what do our students think? Graduation is, after all, a celebration and recognition of their accomplishments.

As I read that, I remembered a Jasper Missouri High School graduation I covered many years ago during my days as a newspaper reporter, in which the graduating class remembered one of its own, Jessica Jo Lynn. Jessica was not taken from this earth while she was in high school, but during a fire when she was nine years old. Nine years had passed, but her classmates never forgot her and wanted to make sure she was included in their special moment.

Can you imagine how important that moment was to Jessica's family?

The practice of having a chair with a cap and gown on it has been used at many schools.

Unfortunately, the situation has escalated in Joplin. The threats to hold protests if the empty chair is not allowed have only served, understandably, to stiffen the resolve of school officials. We have reached the point where no one seems willing to make a move in the direction of doing what would serve the community best.

And let's be clear about one thing -- while the spotlight at the graduation ceremony shines most brightly on those who cross the stage and receive their diplomas, commencement has been, and always will be, a community activity.

Community is not just a word to be summoned by school officials whenever it is time to pass a bond issue or increase a tax levy. The Joplin community must be an inclusive one and the best message that can be sent to the community is that Joplin Schools do not leave anyone behind.

This would be the perfect time to start a new tradition. A folding chair with a cap and gown should placed with the students when the ceremony is held at Missouri Southern State University less than four months from now, but it should not be for just Zach Williams. One of the people who commented on Facebook, noted that one of her siblings would have graduated this year, but she was not asking for anything special.

She should.

A chair signifying those who lost their lives far too early would be a sign of a Joplin High School graduating class that never forgets. Invitations to the graduation should be sent to the parents of those children. While the reading of the names of those who receive diplomas should be limited to those who will actually receive them, nothing is wrong with putting a few extra names on the program noting those who have passed.

These actions would not detract from any of the attention being given to the members of the graduating class any more than the listing of people who died during the preceding year detracts from the Academy Awards. This type of remembrance of classmates who are no longer with us has been done at schools across this country and it has never cheapened the graduation experience.

And again, think of how much this thoughtful action would mean to these parents to know that no matter how many years have passed, their children remain alive in the hearts and memories of their classmates.

The people of Joplin earned the praise they received for their response to the tornado, but the tornado, despite the important role it has played in our lives, is not the sum total of who we are.

Graduation ceremonies are celebrations of accomplishment and the prospect of unlimited horizons, but it never hurts to take a moment and look back on what might have been.