Thomas Jefferson holds opening-day ceremony

Aug. 23—One by one, the 22 members of the 2023 Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School senior class lined up against the back wall inside the school's foyer.

Moments later, the remaining student body, 273 strong, entered the building following the traditional opening-day flag-raising ceremony outside.

The procession was led by prekindergarten student Raleigh Blackledge, who passed by each smiling senior, either slapping an opened palm or trading soft fist bumps.

"That was awesome," the 4-year-old said to a friend moments after greeting the last senior.

By the time the juniors had passed by — trading handshakes, fake punches to the ribs, shoulder slaps or quick hugs — several of the seniors could be seen shaking hands reddened from all the slaps.

The third graders didn't hold back, senior Cain Butcher said.

It's all part of Thomas Jefferson's first-day tradition — seniors lining up to greet the student body; the flag-raising ceremony conducted by fifth grade students; the "good morning" exchanges between the new seniors and the assembled classes; group pictures of those seniors on the stairs; and the signing of the school's honor code, where each student pledges, in writing, to be the best they can be throughout the school year.

With the seniors grouped together in front of the flagpole, the rest of the student body faced them. To each class, the seniors would cup their hands and yell, "Good morning, pre-K" or "Good morning, fifth grade." Each class would respond back with "Good morning, seniors."

The tradition "feels different because we're the ones saying everything and we got to stand in front instead of being in the back," senior Yasmina Mokhtar said. "Saying 'good morning' to everyone is a lot different than you think it would be."

Thomas Jefferson will mark its 30th anniversary next year. The Joplin-based school was founded in 1993.

According to TJ's Robert Carlson, director of communication and technology, of the 22 seniors in the 2023 class, 11 began as pre-K students — meaning 12 years ago, they slapped hands and fist-bumped a group of seniors during their very first day of school. Also, 10 of the current seniors had at least one parent not born in the United States.

"That's a pretty diverse class — one of our most diverse ever," Carlson said.

Monday morning's flag-raising ceremony was witnessed by 350 students, parents and alumni.

During the welcoming ceremony, Shanna Cassatt watched as her daughter, Tannah, enjoyed her status as top dog inside the school.

"This is a very emotional moment," Shanna said, phone camera poised. "I've been waiting for this day for quite a while."

Tannah joined Thomas Jefferson in the first grade, her mother said, adding, "She's been looking forward to this (day)" for quite some time.

John Sweeny's daughter, Sophia, was one of the 11 seniors who have spent their entire academic career at T.J. It was a bittersweet moment for the T.J. board of trustees member; he was happy to see his daughter reach the top, but he also knows her tenure at the school will soon be at an end.

"This is just a very special day," Sweeny said, who minutes earlier had given his daughter a hug as parents and faculty followed the student body in parading in front of the assembled seniors, shaking hands or taking selfies. "(Sophia) has been here her whole career — it's just wonderful. A lot of hard work."

Butcher said he left T.J. his junior year and, during that brief time away, he quickly learned to appreciate what the school offered in terms of traditions and values.

"Being away from it like I was, you learn how much of a community it is here," he said. "It's nice to be back."

This will be the last time these 22 seniors sign the school's honor code, which stresses respect, compassion, honesty, self-discipline and perseverance from the students over the next 180 days.

"I think I'll live that way" throughout life, Mokhtar said of the school's code, "because it's become a part of my life."