Joshua, who is 7, thought a moment.
"Well," he said, "how are you doing?"
Like the other 370 kids at McNair Elementary on Fort Bragg, Joshua understands that war takes parents away, sometimes for good. At the beginning of the school year, two-thirds of the students had a parent deployed.
"It's not like being at a school outside the gate," said Timothy Howle, the principal and himself a former Special Forces officer. "Here, all the kids know. There's an empathy, and I think that makes it better for them."
On Thursday, the cocoon woven by teachers, staff, parents and students got just a little sturdier as the school dedicated a "Wall of Heroes" to Ryann's dad, Maj. Larry J. Bauguess, a Moravian Falls native killed May 14.
Howle told the group about how Bauguess had told his wife, Wesley, in March how much Afghan kids wanted ink pens, and how she had come to the school and started a program to send pens to the soldiers to hand out. He told how her husband was killed not long after that, and she took on a host of causes, including working with wounded soldiers and other families who have lost a soldier in combat.
As Howle talked, Ryann began to cry and clung to her mother's leg.
But then it came time to do her duty and, like her dad, she did it. She regained her composure and stepped to one side of the red sheet covering the wall. Her sister, Ellie, a kindergartner, took the other side, and they yanked it down.
At a civilian school, this wall, in a hall just outside the office, might be decorated with construction paper turkeys and pilgrims this time of year. At McNair, though, it now bears a giant flag, a photo of Bauguess and a painted scroll bearing a definition of the word hero. Below the scroll are dozens of photos of parents of students, some alone, some with the kids, some clearly taken in Iraq or Afghanistan.
At first, the idea was to put up photos of deployed parents, Howle said. But the school decided to open it up to any kid who wanted to put a parent up.
Howle keeps a spreadsheet that tracks parents' deployment dates, and whenever one leaves, he comes to the child's classroom to present a certificate. "I want to make a big deal of it, and make sure they understand that we know they're a hero, too, and that we know they're sacrificing, just like their dad or their mom," Howle said.
And the teachers, he said, are finely attuned to kids' moods and performance and how that might be related to whether a parent is gone or about to leave.
Bauguess' parents and other relatives came for the modest ceremony. Wesley Bauguess called the wall a great tribute to her husband, but that it wasn't about him exactly.
"It's so beautiful, people will stop by and look," she said. "It's a great opportunity for people to reflect and think about our heroes out there and what they've done and what they continue to do for us."
As their parents watched the ceremony, Joshua and three other McNair students played in the empty cafeteria. His dad hadn't deployed yet. Seven-year-old James Roller's dad just came home. Five-year-old Tyrece White's is still deployed, and 7-year-old Emily Lowman matter-of-factly talked about how her dad, Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Lowman, was injured when his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.
He's home now, and safe, but she's still happy to walk past the photo when her class goes to lunch, the one that shows her and him nose-to-nose, labeled "Emily Lowman's Hero."
"That means every day in school I can remember my dad," she said.