Orange Grove Middle Magnet students gathered in the school’s theater to watch their classmates showcase songs and skits on Thursday, but they also were there as part of a surprise for one of their friends.
Air Force Master Sgt. Marquese Hayden returned home from Kuwait after a six-month deployment, and Orange Grove was his first stop of the day so he could surprise daughter Tahja, a seventh grader. When his plane ran late and the bank of ready-to-go performances ran low, organizers improvised, compelling students to sing (appropriately) The Star-Spangled Banner and even a holiday tune.
When word arrived that the guest of honor was in place, students performing in one particular number did what drama students do at competition. They introduced themselves one by one. When all the students for that song were introduced, Hayden stepped through the curtain to a growing cacophony of gasps, applause and screaming.
“It has been a long journey from plane to plane. I have traveled over 36 hours just for this moment,” Hayden said afterwards. “It was magical. It took me a moment to find my daughter. As I was looking through the crowd … and just as I imagined, she was in tears.”
Tashaundra Hayden, Marquese’s wife and Tahja’s mother, coordinated with theater teacher Laurie Philpot to plan the surprise. Philpot said the lessons learned for all the students gathered were important ones: “Camaraderie, passion, empathy and just love."
Tahja said she’s looking forward to spending time with Dad.
As those theater students left for a competition in Orlando, the Haydens left Orange Grove for their next stop at Robinson High School, to execute a subtler surprise for ninth-grader Tahj. Principal Robert Bhoolai called Tahj down to his office, where Mom, Dad and Tahja were waiting.
A third surprise came in a classroom at Tinker K-8 School at MacDill Air Force Base, where second-grader Maddex attends school.
After a whirlwind day and after six months apart, the Haydens were back together.