The town that built me

Melissa Plunkett, L'11As a small girl, I would walk in circles around the giant metal cross that stood outside my church. As my parents caught up with their friends after mass, I would trace my hand across its rough surface, rusted from the weather, biding my time until I could pick out a Sunday donut. After a few trips around, I would stop, stare up at the towering rood, and slap my hand against it to listen to the echo move through its hollow center up to the sky.

In that stage of my life, I told my parents I wanted to be a hospital when I grew up. Impossibility meant nothing to me, and not a single real worry wandered my way. Life was a given, just like that cross standing tall to greet us every Sunday morning, or my brother walking home from Irving Elementary with me every Monday afternoon, or a stadium of fans cheering on the Eagles at home football games on Fridays nights. But even as a young girl, that town began to build skills in me that I would need somewhere down the line, slowly teaching me lessons about respecting others, facing challenges head on, and never giving up. Because two blocks away from that church, at a small two-story brick elementary school, I learned that sometimes just being nice to others can change their whole day when a classmate helped dust off my jeans after a spill on the playground. A few more blocks down the road at South Middle School, I learned that perseverance pays off after spending hours and hours squeaking notes out of my clarinet before I could play the song just right. And a few miles away on the volleyball and basketball court of Joplin High School, I learned that success isn’t necessarily measured in the number of wins at the end of the season, but in the way the game is played.

Years down the line, after I used those skills to persevere through the struggle that is law school, I watched my town begin to struggle its way through the biggest battle that it would ever face. Because on the night of my commencement from law school, all that was left of my church was that towering metal cross, the walls of my fifth-grade classroom splayed out to cover the site of many tether ball battles, broken blinds protruded out of the windows of the band room at old South Middle, and the gymnasium ceiling crashed down to meet that wooden court at the high school. Seeing those buildings, which always stood like bookmarks of my past, crumbled and torn apart sent a deep sorrow through me. But throughout this past summer, I’ve realized that my foundation doesn’t lie in those buildings. No, I’ve learned that it is the people of Joplin who have always been my foundation —supporting me, leading by example, and bringing me back to who I really am. And while my heart broke when I saw their hurt and heard their stories, my heart has filled with pride as I have watched them begin picking up the pieces and marching back towards normalcy.

What I’ve learned from Joplin is that integrity, charity, and resiliency shine in a time of tragedy. But as I reflect on this summer, I can see that these characteristics don’t need to be stored away for some unimaginable catastrophe. No, they are applicable in every aspect of life—every day. They are the same lessons that have pushed me through small crises, the same lessons that saved me from going crazy in law school, the same lessons I’ll use in the future for some new challenge I’m sure I’ll face. And as a fresh class heads toward its first set of finals in Green Hall and my classmates head into their new careers, I thought it might be helpful to share some of those lessons for others to use when facing their own personal challenges.

Lesson 1: When it looks impossible at first, just start working and worry about the impossibility later.

More than a few times, I have looked at a research assignment, an insane editing schedule, or just the unknown future and thought, “There is no way I can handle this.” When my brain starts to panic, I have to remind myself to just take it one step at a time and trudge through what I can at that moment.

I had to remind myself to focus on the small steps when I went home the week after the storm. To walk into a place that is so familiar, with images etched into your every fiber, and not recognize anything or even know where you are standing is more than unnerving. For the people who stood in front of their own homes and saw nothing left, that feeling multiplied into incredulity. But brick by brick, tree limb by tree limb, and board by board people literally just started picking up the pieces, not focusing on the impossibility of it all. Soon, truck after truck hauled the shattered pieces of the town away, leaving a barren scar across its face. And slowly but steadily, new nails, boards, and bricks have begun to soften the jagged edge of that scar, making the new beginning, which seemed impossible a few months ago, a closer reality.

And so, Joplin has again reminded me of a valuable lesson: When it seems impossible, just start moving, and with a little work, the finish line will soon seem much closer than first thought.

Lesson 2: You can’t always do it by yourself — you have to rely on others; they can’t always do it by themselves—you have to help.

When working through something challenging, it becomes easy to get caught up in personal battles and forget the people around you. In law school, I constantly had to remind myself to step back and see the people who could help me and the people who I could help—it’s too easy to forget that you don’t have to face all challenges by yourself.

The people of Joplin haven’t had to travel this journey by themselves either. In fact, in a place that has seen so much heartache, I’ve never seen so much generosity and love. For example, as a friend started the task of tearing rain soaked walls and ceilings out of his house, a crew of strangers showed up at his door. In a few hours, their saws and muscles had taken out every wall and ceiling in that house. When they were done, they moved down the road to the next person in need. This group was just one of hundreds. The various efforts have been organized on, allowing anyone to find a way to help. Many attorneys have assisted and continue to assist in Joplin, including the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and Legal Aid of Western Missouri. All of these people and groups recognized a need and gave what they could. The outpouring of help is overwhelmingly wonderful.

Maybe the outpouring of help has been so great because the hurt is so raw and easy to identify. But a helping hand has the same impact in less drastic situations. You don’t need to wait until a tragedy strikes to offer assistance and strike a chord in someone’s heart. Every small gesture of kindness can have a huge return. And any small gesture is a blessing in the competitive environment of law school, where students can get so focused on the individual battle.

So, take a step back and look at the people around you—you can probably do something to make their life easier. And if you let them, they can probably do the same for you.

Lesson 3: No one knows exactly what they’re doing; don’t make that your excuse.

I’ve heard it from fellow law students, I’ve heard it friends, and my own thoughts have screamed it at me: “Everyone else knows what they’re doing, but I just feel like I’m stumbling along.”

You probably are stumbling along, but everyone else is probably in the same situation. The people who look like they have it all together and who end up being the most successful are most likely just putting their insecurities aside, focusing on the skills they can use, and using their resources to make up in the areas they lack. Sometimes, you just have to ignore the stumbling when work needs to be done.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the Joplin schools. How can any school district know how to get back to teaching kids when ten of its schools suffered damage and hundreds of teachers lost their classrooms and supplies all in one day? No one knows. But in the spring, the district promised to start the school year on time. While I’m sure the path wasn’t exactly smooth, on Aug. 17, those schools opened their doors to welcome students back. And to the outside world, the school district looked like it implemented a plan that had been in place all along. Why? Because even though it might not have known exactly how to get those kids back into a school, it got to work, using the resources it had and reaching out to find the help it needed—something we can all do when faced with a new challenge.

So move forward one step at a time, help where you can, accept help when you need it, and act like your stumbling is all part of your plan. The people of Joplin have, and so far they are pushing through this tragedy.

On my last trip home, I walked around that now lonely metal cross one more time and brushed my fingers across the metal face. This time the feel of that cool metal on my hand sent an echo through me, rumbling memories to my core. This town may never look the same, and those places that have always stored my memories may never be replaced. But the values and principles that they stood for will live on in me and all the other people that this town helped to build.

— Melissa Plunkett was extremely blessed that her family suffered no damage to their home from the storm, she will forever be a Joplin Eagle, and she listened to Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” too many times while writing this article. She is a 2011 graduate of the University of Kansas School of Law, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Kansas Law Review and as a member of the Moot Court Council. Melissa is currently clerking for Judge Julie Robinson in Topeka, Kan. This column first appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of the Journal of the Kansas Bar Association.