During the Meadowdale Middle School Veterans Day concert on Thursday night, Kendria Hawks stood at a microphone placed in front of the choir with her arms stiffly at her sides, facing a full audience. She was reciting an essay she wrote about her father, a Navy veteran and current civilian contractor.
“When we were at the airport, I tried not to cry, but we were sending him back to a war zone,” she recited. “It was scary. I didn’t want him to go. I don’t think anyone would.”
That’s when her music teacher, Kathy Miller, put an arm around Hawks’ shoulder. “We have a surprise for you,” she said, and a man sporting a buzz cut and a suit entered the gymnasium.
Hawks covered her mouth with both hands. Tears streamed down her reddened face as she bolted into the man’s arms. The crowd stood, applauding. It turned out that the suited man was Hawks’ father, Chris Burgess, who has been working in Afghanistan and hasn’t seen his family since June.
Hawks had no idea that her father has been home since yesterday around 11 a.m., or that her mother Deidria Burgess has been plotting the surprise for a little over two months.
“I live for my kids,” Deidria said. “I love surprising them. This is one of the biggest things we’ve been able to pull off.”
Although the couple had been talking about the surprise for a while, Chris Burgess was officially granted his two-week break about three weeks ago. That’s when Deidria brought Miller into her scheme.
“I just thought, what an incredible thing this was not just for Kendria, but for everybody,” Miller said. “What a wonderful moment to share.”
Keeping the secret was no easy task for the mother-teacher team. Deidria’s mother almost spoiled the surprise on the drive to the concert. Miller said not telling anyone was also challenging for her, but knowing how special the surprise would be helped her to keep quiet.
The concert on Thursday night is the first of a two-part veterans’ event that Meadowdale Middle School sponsors every year. On Friday, the school will host the Veterans Day Assembly, which will include not only the concert, but also additional speakers and testimonials. Chris Burgess will be one of the guest speakers during Friday’s assembly, and up to this point, Miller has kept Burgess’ name off of the program for fear that someone might see it and tell Hawks.
Meadowdale Middle School Principal Jennifer Kniseley said that when she learned about the surprise plot on Wednesday, she thought this would be an unforgettable experience for the entire student body.
“Sometimes it’s challenging to explain the power of veterans and what being a veteran means to middle-schoolers,” she said, “but now they can see it in one little snapshot.”
After releasing her father from her embrace, a teary-eyed Hawks perched herself on his lap in the front row of the audience for a few moments before returning to her place on the choir bleachers.
“I thought it wasn’t real,” she said. “I sang with more joy knowing that he was in the audience.”
Miller, who is in charge of organizing the concert and the assembly, said that the Veterans Day event is the only formal assembly the school hosts.
“I think it’s so important for the kids to have a sense of reverence,” she said. “It’s important to honor what the veterans have done.”
Immediately following the concert, after the immediate excitement had worn off, Kendria said she was mostly looking forward to sleeping—and according to Deidria Burgess, the reunited family is looking forward to celebrating their hybrid “Thanksmas” during the two weeks Chris Burgess is home.
— Story and photos by Natalie Covate