TAMPA — Tiffany Messingham wanted to get her first-grade students thinking about how the sun works.
How does it change things?
So in November, the bubbly teacher at Lee Elementary School of Technology and World Studies started an experiment. She directed her students to cut outlines of their hands on turquoise construction paper.
The students wrote their names on the palm prints and taped them to classroom windows, where they would absorb the light.
What will happen to the paper over time, she asked them. Make a prediction.
"She was raising those questions to really get the kids to question how the world around them works," said Summer Montgomery, 31, who also teaches first grade at Lee.
Some students thought the sun would shrink the paper. Others predicted the light would change its color to purple.
Also lining the walls were photos Ms. Messingham had taken of students, each framed inside paper portholes, as if they were on a seagoing journey.
A consummate organizer, Ms. Messingham planned for every contingency, devoting hours after school to preparation and slipping snacks into backpacks of the students she worried about.
She always said God had a plan, too.
Ms. Messingham, a cheerful woman married to her work and many friendships, died Sunday. She was 32. She was about to begin chemotherapy for oral cancer diagnosed last month, her family said.
Colleagues considered Ms. Messingham, who led Lee's first-grade "team," a wellspring of optimism.
"I have more than double her teaching experience," said Montgomery. "But I found myself going to her for reassurance and support."
Some of that exuberance came as a byproduct of tragedy.
Tiffany Jo Messingham was born in Farmington, Minn., a physician's daughter. The family moved to Tampa in the early 1990s. Ms. Messingham was 13 when her mother, Barbara, died at age 34 of internal bleeding after surgery.
"It made us realize how short life is and not to take anything for granted," said Cassandra Johnson, 30, her sister.
Ms. Messingham danced competitively and at athletic events with the King High Lionettes. She joined Delta Delta Delta at the University of South Florida, remained on its board and served as a field consultant to other Tri-Delt chapters around the country.
She had a serious relationship or two. Twice in her 20s, Ms. Messingham moved to New York, where there was a boyfriend.
"She had her various relationships, but I think she was waiting for Mr. Right," said Stephanie Sabota, 31, a sorority sister.
In between she taught kindergarten at Foster Elementary and went back to USF for a master's degree.
Ms. Messingham started at Lee Elementary midway through the last school year. She impressed parents with her ability to zero in on each student.
"She was able to challenge the ones who were ahead of the curve and help the ones who were below it," said Malina Spokas, 38, whose 6-year-old daughter, Ella, is in the class Ms. Messingham started in August.
This year, Ms. Messingham was leading her class through an interdisciplinary study of South America.
Then early in January she went to the dentist, who examined a bump on her tongue. A subsequent biopsy revealed cancer. She underwent surgery at Moffitt Cancer Center.
She was recovering nicely from the surgery, her family said. But there was another potential problem: Doctors had discovered an unrelated tumor on her pancreas. On medical leave, Ms. Messingham was scheduled to start chemotherapy soon for the oral cancer. Students sent her cards and had also made valentines.
She had brunch Saturday with her grandparents, then shopped with her pregnant sister, buying gifts for a niece due any day.
"No matter what happened, she stayed very positive," said longtime friend Laura Carmen, 32. "She felt that this was all part of the bigger plan, and that everything would work out the way it was meant to."
Ms. Messingham died in her sleep in her Harbour Island apartment. Her family is awaiting autopsy results performed by doctors at Moffitt.
On Sunday the school's principal called parents, many of whom were caught off guard by the news. Ms. Messingham had been expected to return to teaching as early as March.
Grief counselors from the school district awaited students Monday morning.
"Some are visibly upset," Montgomery said. "They cry and talk about it. With others, you can just kind of tell. They're trying to work it all out in their heads."
Friends are hanging onto reminders of Ms. Messingham, most of which she sent: "Thinking of you" cards sent for no reason in particular; a recent text conversation Ms. Messingham ended by writing, "I love you."
Students at Lee are reminded every day.
Already, their faces have changed from the photos Ms. Messingham took in the fall and put on the board.
On the windows, their construction-paper handprints have been faded by the sun.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.