Eleven-year-old Joshua Torres died of complications from muscular dystrophy in October before the leaves fell from the trees, but his Havre de Grace classmates haven't forgotten their friend in a wheelchair.
Over the winter, the Roye-Williams Elementary fifth-graders turned their grief into a classroom project, gathering dimes and quarters and seeking larger donations from parents and local businesses to raise $400 to buy a memorial for Joshua -- a desk designed for the disabled.
"What started out as a dream for Room 308 has become a reality," the students' teacher, Renee Villareal, said at an emotional ceremony yesterday to dedicate the desk and to remember Joshua.
As the fifth-grade class sang, "That's What Friends Are For" and Joshua's 8-year-old sister, Dominique, told the audience how much she missed her brother, tears were frequently evident.
"We will never forget him," classmate Jerry Washington said.
Joshua's parents, Robert and Diane Torres -- at times visibly moved by the tribute -- sat on the stage as their son's friend, Marlyn Ruiz, rolled her wheelchair to the new desk and cut a yellow ribbon.
Marlyn, who has spina bifida, a congenital defect of the spinal column, will be the first student to use the adjustable table.
"Joshua would have liked the fact it's going to Marlyn," Mrs. Villareal said. Each year, the desk will be passed on to the oldest student in a wheelchair at the school, she said.
The students in Mrs. Villareal's class eagerly shared stories about Joshua, whom they remember as a shy, caring boy who loved school.
They also said Joshua didn't mind talking about his illness, a chronic disease characterized by a progressive deterioration of the muscles.
"He told us about problems he had with his legs and parts like that," Jerry said.
There were setbacks as the disease progressed. Joshua had trouble with his heart and finally was too ill to go to school.
On Oct. 14, the day he died, Joshua was granted a favorite wish -- meeting rapper Tupac Shakur. "He held on till then," said his father, a sergeant stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"He was getting really sick," his mother said. To lift Joshua's spirits, she called a radio station to find out how she could get Mr. Shakur to phone her dying son.
Not only did the singer call, but in a matter of hours, he arrived via jet to the proving ground from New York and was knocking on the Torreses' door.
"Joshua was very weak, but he smiled for him and quoted some of his lyrics," Mrs. Torres said.
Then he died.
Sergeant Torres has lost more than his son, he said. "It was like having a real good friend, especially when I was having a bad day," he said.
"He would say, 'I know you're a soldier,' but just try to relax."
The upbeat little boy, who loved chocolate ice cream, the Atlanta Braves and his goldfish, George, will also long be remembered at Roye-Williams.
At yesterday's ceremony, the students dedicated a wood plaque with a photo of a happy Joshua in his wheelchair. It will hang in the school's main lobby until, as Jerry put it, "the school tears down."