Overcoming Adversity Against All Odds

Across our country, millions of public school students from low-income, high-crime areas overcome dire circumstances, such as gang presence, food instability, inadequate housing, and ubiquitous drug culture, to succeed academically. They defy the stereotype that poverty precludes academic success and that low income and low academic performance are unavoidably linked. These small success stories everywhere demonstrate that children and adolescents from the most challenging backgrounds can succeed in school and in life, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges.

But what about when something truly tragic happens that shakes the schools, the students . . . the entire community? How, as a group, do the various individuals and institutions work together to heal and recover from the toughest of assaults when the stakes are already against them? Take Joplin, Missouri where, in May of 2011, an EF-5 multiple-vortex tornado—one mile wide— hit their town. It killed 158 people and injured 1,150. It did 2.8 billion dollars’ worth of damage to a city that was already hit hard by the economy and the scourge of methamphetamine culture.

The city of Joplin estimates that, in the aftermath of the disaster, almost 130,000 volunteers logged hundreds of thousands of hours of labor, bringing what looked like utter devastation back into a recognizable village. The rebuilding that occurred has been referred to by Joplinites as a “miracle of the human spirit.” And when educational officials opened the schools after the tornado, the expected a marked decline in enrollment and attendance. Instead, what happened was this: a united, victorious 95% of the students returning to class.

Similar stories of inspiration can be found in the wake of both natural disasters and tragedies brought about by shocking and unexpected criminal events. In cities touched by sudden violence, often the residents will pull together with greater unity than ever before . . . as if defying the very attacker itself (natural or otherwise) to “come at me, Bro.”

When assaults to the foundations of our communities occur, rebuilding is sometimes much harder than building from scratch. But it’s not impossible, and it can be done through certain stages of emotional processing, individually and as a group, and it might look something like this:

Express your grief. Allow yourself to mourn fully. Do not resist, reduce, or repress it in yourself or others.

Get help. The best way to do this is in a small group, such as a church or therapy network. If you are unable to handle your feelings alone, you may find comfort and real, useful tools by uniting with others who are similarly suffering.

Choose to move on. I know, this is the hardest one. But this is what the most successful communities do, as a group and as individuals. They move on. Step by painful step, until the pain lessens.

Clarify your priorities. You cannot change what happened, but you can live out the remainder of your life focused on family, community, reunification, and healing. And before too long, you may find that you’re all even stronger than you were before.