As Herbert Hoover Middle School Principal Brian McGrath stood at the podium acknowledging an eighth grader who was not in attendance at Tuesday’s promotion ceremony, the faint cries of a baby pierced an eerie silence inside the gymnasium.
The celebratory mood that previously filled the crowded room during a roll call of outstanding students, who had just paraded around the basketball court to a well-deserved round of applause as family and friends took pictures, turned abruptly somber.
The accomplishments of the eighth-grade graduating class were so vast and impressive that nearly two dozen special awards, all of which had many multiple recipients, were needed to accommodate this intelligent and well-rounded group.
Eighth-grader Colleen Tonra eloquently summed up her classmates’ three years in middle school with a flawlessly delivered farewell address that reflected upon the past and provided a glimpse of the future with precocious wisdom.
McGrath proceeded with his poignant speech about the Herbert Hoover student who started sixth grade but never began eighth grade with her classmates.
She was my daughter, Marisa Rose Tufaro, who died earlier this year after complications from a heart transplant, which was supposed to extend her life, tragically cut it short when she succumbed to a rare form of Stage IV cancer following a valiant battle.
“Our goal here is to provide all of our students with the knowledge, the skills and the disposition to flourish in school and in life,” McGrath began. “By and large, this school does that. Every once in a while, however, the tables are turned on us. And that happened here at Hoover three years ago. What I mean by that is, myself and all the teachers and staff learned more from this student than I think we could have ever taught her. Three years ago, we had the honor of receiving Marisa Tufaro. She was a young lady born with a host of health issues that eventually led to her passing.”
As McGrath continued to pay tribute to Marisa, I looked around the room at her former classmates, many with which whom she attended school since kindergarten, and was overcome with mixed emotion – elated beyond words for these bright and talented kids who were headed to high school, and profoundly saddened that my daughter could only be with them in spirit.
“The first time I met Marisa was after getting a phone call from her parents,” McGrath continued. “They shared with me this laundry list of things that she had gone through, ailments that had plagued her. In my mind, I had this picture of a girl who would come in demure and quiet. I was quickly educated by her. She came in and sat down and she had more energy than I did. She had a smile from ear to ear. It was apparent that all those things that plagued her never diminished her spirit. She had an energy and a presence that once you experienced it, you could not forget it.
“Over the last three years, I was educated on what it means to be creative, compassionate, determined and to persevere, and to always find the silver lining. I think the students here who best know her would say the same thing. The same energy Marisa was displaying on a daily basis is still here. It’s in this room. It’s in this town. And it’s going to continue. Marisa was a special girl in her life and beyond and I think she will continue to do good things.”
McGrath told the students – each of who was wearing a purple bracelet with the words “THE MARISA TUFARO FOUNDATION HELPING CHILDREN IN NEED” – that a community effort was already underway to honor Marisa’s memory and keep alive her spirit.
“Her parents continue that energy that was so boundless in her and they put that into The Marisa Tufaro Foundation,” McGrath said. “That foundation has already started to have an impact on our children and families here in our community. There are two students seated here who will continue with the passion Marisa had for her art because of that foundation.”
McGrath presented the two students with the Marisa Tufaro Memorial Arts Scholarship for a week-long summer arts camp at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Arts Museum. The scholarships were made available in the name of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation through the benevolence of an anonymous donor who is a member of the Greater Middlesex Conference Baseball Coaches Association.
Following a round of applause for the scholarship recipients, McGrath issued a challenge to his students.
“Boys and girls,” he said. “On your wrists you have a bracelet that was provided by the Tufaros. On that bracelet are some words of inspiration. My question for you is: Are you willing to carry the legacy of compassion and perseverance with you as you leave here? If you are, please stand up and show these parents that this legacy will continue.”
Every student and every adult in attendance rose to their feet for a standing ovation. McGrath presented my wife and me with an Art Achievement Certificate for Marisa from art teacher Eileen Teffenhart and a framed photograph of a newly planted weeping cherry tree that sits in the school courtyard.
“This beautiful weeping cherry tree that will bloom pink in the spring has been planted in memory of your daughter,” reads a certificate of appreciation that McGrath presented to Cyndi and me. “She will forever be in our thoughts and live in our hearts.”
Just when I thought the steady stream of tears would stop rolling down my cheeks, the eighth-grade chorus and orchestra presented a gorgeous rendition of “How Far I’ll Go” from the motion picture “Moana.”
The movie happened to be the last Marisa ever saw. A nurse, who knew how much Marisa loved “Moana” and its soundtrack, gave Marisa a “Moana” fleece blanket that covered her in the hospital. We played “How Far I’ll Go” inside that intensive care unit room a thousand times.
After the ceremony, most of the graduated eighth graders rode away in cars with their parents, while those who lived within walking distance of the school strolled down Jackson Avenue with their moms and dads.
I drove alone to the cemetery – just a couple miles away from the school in Metuchen – to see Marisa. I told her what McGrath had said, how proud I was of her classmates, how much admiration I have for all of her teachers, how much I miss her and how dearly I love her.
I told Marisa her spirit and legacy, thanks to a caring school-community, will continue to grow, much like that weeping cherry tree in the courtyard.