Lunchtime was almost over, and Janiah Norman had just finished her lasagna and strawberry milk when she spotted him at the cafeteria door.
Pfc. Rodolfo Tellado was walking toward her in Army fatigues and combat boots, with a shy smile growing across his face.
Thirteen grueling months had passed while he was stationed in South Korea as a communications specialist. Janiah had had to settle for short phone calls and occasional Skype chats.
To her surprise, though, here in front of dozens of classmates was Tellado, the man who had become the father Janiah never really had.
She sat in shock as the other Jenkins White Elementary Charter School pupils craned their necks in curiosity.
Tellado walked slowly to Janiah’s seat, saluted her with his right hand and squeezed her tight as she threw her arms around his waist.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” Janiah said through tears.
Janiah is not Tellado’s biological daughter, but he said he loves her as though she were.
He met Janiah’s mother, Jessica Norman, 25, shortly after being stationed at Fort Gordon in September 2012.
They started as friends. Norman was a little put off by his being three years younger, but in a short time they became inseparable. Norman loved his smile and how they laughed while dancing to Michael Jackson the Experience on Nintendo Wii. But what won her heart was watching Tellado with her daughter.
Since Janiah was born, Norman fought hard to have the girl’s biological father be in her life, but she finally had to stop trying.
Tellado, though, didn’t have to be asked to participate. It was organic. Norman said he would read Janiah’s favorite books out loud and even crawl on the ground to play with her baby dolls.
“It affected her not having a father, and (Tellado) saw that and wanted to be there,” Norman said.
Tellado said it helps knowing what such a void can feel like.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Tellado was raised mostly by his aunt and grandmother. His mother died when he was in the ninth grade, and his father “was always elsewhere.”
He said he often felt an ache for a man to talk to about sports, girls and just worries on his mind.
When he met Janiah, Tellado said, their bond was instant.
“I didn’t have a father figure, and people that know what that’s like kind of gravitate toward each other,” he said. “I wanted to be there for her.”
Norman said she and Tellado wanted to surprise Janiah during lunch Wednesday to make a special memory for the beginning of a new chapter.
The three of them will soon move to Fort Stewart, near Savannah, Ga., where Tellado will be stationed for at least the next seven months.
They made the visit to Jenkins White after Tellado spent more than 20 hours in the air, hopping planes from South Korea to Japan to Seattle to Dallas, and arriving in Savannah late Tuesday night.
After the surprise in the cafeteria, they walked Janiah back to her class, where Assistant Principal Cheryl Fry introduced Tellado to the pupils as one of the bravest kind of men the community has.
The class gave him a round of applause for his service as Janiah beamed.
With Tellado still jet-lagged, the couple left Janiah to finish the school day and pondered what they should do with their first full afternoon together.
“How about Michael Jackson Wii?” Norman asked, smiling.