MOORE — Nih Nai planned to begin his commencement speech by joking that his senior class might be graduating in an unlucky year — 2013.
That was before an EF5 tornado ripped through Moore, killing 24 people and leaving thousands homeless, including many of his classmates.
The valedictorian of his graduating class at Southmoore High School rode out the storm in a closet. His home wasn't damaged, but the sound of the tornado found its way to his hiding spot.
“I could hear the rumble; it sounded like a vacuum,” he said.
He didn't see the destruction until he sped to pick up his sister, Ngan, from school after the tornado hit.
Ngan is 22 and has Down syndrome. She is also graduating on Saturday and at his request will stand at Nai's side as he delivers his speech.
As he drove down SW 19 Street in Moore, his usual path to school, he could see how the storm has decimated his community.
“I did tear up when I walked toward the school,” he said.
Nai said he had his doubts that graduation would go on, considering all that had happened, but Moore Public Schools announced a day later the ceremonies would be held as planned.
In the meantime, he and his friends began collecting food and supplies for the victims and tried to contact those affected to find out what could be done.
It wasn't until Thursday that students at the high school were able to meet up and check on one another. They showed up to return books and finalize grades, but Nai said the real reason was just to see their friends and make sure everyone was OK.
There was a lot of hugging and storytelling, he said.
Nai said like most seniors he had been counting down the days until graduation.
“But now that it's over, it's different,” he said. “It's bittersweet.”
He asked his teachers and classmates if it would be all right with them if he changed his speech. He sat down that night and wrote a final draft.
When Nai stands before his 412 classmates Saturday, he will begin by recounting a lot of the things he's seen in the past week: the destruction, the volunteers, the resiliency. It won't have the same lighthearted tone as the first speech.
He no longer plans to tell the joke about graduating in an unlucky year. Instead, he will say the tornado tried to prove that superstition, but couldn't make it come true.
“We're damaged, but we survived,” the speech reads. “We're hurt, but we are resilient. We're graduating, but we are not done with our successes.”