COLUMBIA — A mother and father sat calmly in Lange Middle School's conference room about 1 p.m. Monday. Their 5-year-old, in a blue Hello Kitty jacket and a high, brown ponytail, sat on her father's lap, quietly entwining her small fingers with his big ones.
It was the first time they'd been able to sit together for six months.
Rodney Blackwell, 34, a sergeant in the Missouri National Guard, had been deployed in Qatar since Sept. 1. Monday marked Blackwell's first day of two weeks' R&R, a break he said was long-awaited and welcome. He visited Lange that afternoon with his wife, Bobbie, 30, to surprise his 12-year-old stepson, Jostin Prior.
The family stuck together as they made their way to Lange's library, where Jostin's seventh-grade classmates, known as the Champions, sat cross-legged. They looked around as a teacher told them a special visitor was coming. Jostin chatted with a boy next to him. Seventh-grade guidance counselor Belinda Woods, who helped organize the surprise, waited in the back with a box of tissues.
As Blackwell entered, Jostin noticed, stared, blinked and gaped. His face changed from an expression of shock to one of tearful happiness. He ran to his stepfather, who scooped him up in a hug.
They stayed that way until Jostin finally pulled back, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his green hoodie and exchanging smiles with Blackwell. Woods, an Army veteran, blotted her eyes while the children and teachers clapped and cheered.
Jostin stood at the front and introduced his stepdad. Blackwell explained to the children that, as a mechanic for the Missouri National Guard, he is responsible for driving soldiers to and from the airport so they can visit their families.
"It's kind of neat to be the one to get on the plane this time," he told them.
Blackwell, who works as a machinist in Moberly, has been deployed three times, including for a year in Iraq. When his leave is up, he'll return to Qatar for another six months. About 1,000 Missouri National Guardsmen are deployed overseas, said spokesman John Quin.
Jostin was in a daze as he followed his family out of the library and back toward the front office, where he would sign out for the day.
"I'm so happy I'm shaking," he said.
Jostin said the best thing about his stepfather being home was knowing he's fine.
"I missed him a lot," Jostin said, trying, but not quite succeeding, to hold back tears. "One time he was putting a plow on his four-wheeler and I got to help. We just do a lot of things together."
Rodney Blackwell said he's most looking forward to just being a family. "It's nice to be able to relax and be with my family and to be away from that kind of life for a while, to get a break from it," he said.
Bobbie Blackwell, a stay-at-home mother, said she had known since Christmas that her husband was coming home in the first week of March. The hardest thing was keeping it from their five children.
"I had to sneak around and tell everyone else in the family," she said, eyes glistening as she looked at her son.
The Blackwells' plan was to surprise all of their children that day. Bobbie Blackwell said she used to watch a lot of soldiers' homecoming videos on YouTube, which gave her the idea.
"Now since he's gone, I try not to watch them," she said. "It's too sad. Anything related to being deployed is a no."
A plus to making the homecoming a surprise, Rodney Blackwell said, was sparing Bobbie from constant questions.
"The kids wouldn't be bugging her every five minutes: 'When's Daddy getting home? When's Daddy getting home?'" he said.
Bobbie and Rodney had already surprised Sierra, the 5-year-old, at preschool Monday morning. The next stop after Lange was Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School, where Hailey Blackwell, 8, Kamryn Prior, 8, and Brynd’n Prior, 10, attend school.
As Jostin waited to surprise his younger siblings, he talked animatedly with his stepdad about cars, using his hands and sound effects to reenact a collision. He talked to his mom about how his brothers and sister would react.
"I want to see their faces," Jostin said.
Hailey's face was blank with disbelief when her dad stepped into her second-grade classroom. Not making a sound, she ran and leaped into his arms, wrapping her legs around him. The two smiled at each other, face to face, as Hailey kept her dad locked in a full-body grip.
"You're getting so heavy," Rodney Blackwell told her.
Next was Kamryn, who was so surprised at first he didn't speak or move. But then he introduced Blackwell to his third-grade classmates, who were wide-eyed with excitement.
Now a group of six, the family was content and teary-eyed as they walked together toward Brynd'n's fourth-grade classroom. Seeing his stepdad at the door, Brynd'n ran full force into him and squeezed him hard around the middle.
At one point, Jostin and Kamryn excitedly compared their reactions to seeing their stepfather.
"I tried to hold my cry in," Kamryn said.
"You don't have to," his big brother said.