The little girl hung there with her arms wrapped around her father's neck, her legs crossed over his camouflage-clad midsection.
Everyone in her class watched. There was silence. There were tears.
A photographer took pictures and a reporter took notes.
The surprise reunion between a fifth-grade girl and her military dad, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Spaulding, became one of the St. Petersburg Times' best-read stories the day it ran, Sept. 17.
Almost every one of the 141 people who commented online wrote of the emotional response they had when they read the homecoming story and scrolled through the heart-wrenching pictures of the surprise reunions Spaulding shared with each of his three kids.
But in recent weeks, the practice of sharing such intensely personal moments with the world through video and news media has come under criticism as being potentially damaging to the children involved.
The New York Times on Sunday published a story that asked "Do these videos celebrate or exploit?" The story quoted Lillian Connolly, a mother of four who leads support groups for military families in Brockton, Mass.
"I recommend to families not to surprise children," said Connolly, whose husband is on his third deployment in Iraq for the Army Reserve. "The child has been without a parent for so long. The child can hold anger. You never know how they're going to react.
"And in front of the media? I don't think it's fair."
Michelle Kelley, a psychology professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia who has worked with military families, agrees. In some cases, she said, it might make an already overwhelming situation even more stressful.
"To kind of publicize the kids' reactions in front of all their friends — that's a lot," she said.
Tammy Spaulding, the 42-year-old Brooksville woman who plotted her husband's secret reunion, says she just doesn't see it. Since Michael Spaulding's visit, she said, her children feel more supported than ever.
"Our community in our area has wrapped their arms around my kids," she said.
The kids in Brooke Spaulding's fifth-grade class have become pen pals with his soldiers in Afghanistan, sending letters and homemade Christmas cards.
Teachers who witnessed the reunion seem to understand better what the family is dealing with, she said.
And then there's the big picture: "I think it has inspired people to realize that it's not only about a war, it's about soldiers," she said.
Mary Carole Curran, a psychologist in St. Louis, Mo., said the impact of a surprise reunion would depend on the child.
With warning, she said, kids do have the chance to prepare mentally and emotionally. "Some of the joy of seeing someone is the anticipation of knowing they're coming," she said.
At Valrico's Cimino Elementary, where about 80 military kids attend, guidance counselor Deborah Minichbauer said there's never been a surprise reunion, but she imagines such an event could be key to helping build support and empathy.
"Not only would it be a surprise, but they would have their peers to celebrate with them," she said.
It has been almost two months now and the Spaulding kids, Brooke, 11, Brice, 13, and Brittany, 15, still talk about that day.
It's what Tammy Spaulding hoped for. She said she planned the moment because she wanted her children to have the memory for the rest of their lives.
"You hope nothing ever happens," she said, "but what a thing to have to remember."
Their father is back in Afghanistan and isn't scheduled to return until June.
Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.