The hundreds of middle school students were quiet as they stuck their little American flags into the ground.
Respectful, the way Mr. Pope taught them.
Veterans Day was a calling for the eighth-grade social studies teacher. Since 2007, James Pope led Mulrennan Middle School in a ceremony that culminated in students forming a living flag — sixth-graders wore white, seventh-graders red, and eighth-graders blue. When Pope, 33, died in a car accident last month, school administrators chose the school's Veterans Day ceremony to honor him.
"Guys, today is a solemn occasion as well as a celebration," principal Tim Ducker told the students Wednesday.
The student chorus sang Tell My Father and the national anthem. The band played a medley of patriotic tunes. Pope's family — including his widow, Jaquie, and two young boys, 3-year-old Jayden and 1-year-old Jackson — sat in the front row.
"He would truly be honored," Jaquie Pope said of her late husband. "This was where his heart was."
Teachers and administrators asked students to remember men and women in uniform on Nov. 11, but also the man who taught them about the day's importance. Pope taught at Mulrennan for six years before taking a promotion at Greco Middle School in Tampa this fall.
"James Wesley Pope dedicated his life and career to things that make this country great," said Jon Watson, head of the social studies department. "This ceremony is a testament to the patriotism he planted."
On that cue, students gathered on the school's front lawn made a "flag garden" in the spot where Pope directed last year's grand event.
"He was trying to get us to understand what it was all about," said seventh-grader Nichole McChord. "He was telling us how we shouldn't be laughing or talking, how we should be proud to be Americans."
The students gingerly pushed miniature flags into the ground. Some planted four or five before returning to where their teachers were standing around the display.
They bought the flags for $1 each in the days before the ceremony, with the nearly $600 in proceeds funding a scholarship for Pope's sons.
It grew silent as little Jayden and Jackson made their way to the garden. Their mother knelt down with them, helping them push the flags past the thick grass.
As they turned to leave, Jackson stumbled and fell, leaving one of the hundreds of flags leaning a bit.
His mother scooped him up, and his brother reached down and pulled the tiny flag upright.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or [email protected]